Pandemic Underscores Importance of Social-Emotional Wellness

Brenna Chiaputti ’98 Middle School Counselor

Moving Toward the Post-Pandemic Future

As devastating and disruptive as the pandemic has been, it has taught us all that emotional and physical well-being are as important as academic achievement. It has provided the opportunity for Kingswood Oxford to do what it has always done best – to nourish our students academically, socially, physically, and emotionally. And it has reminded us all that we’re not just educating students; we’re helping to raise happy and healthy kids. 

Now that the pandemic has subsided, at least temporarily, and Kingswood Oxford has returned to in-person learning, our school’s teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators are asking: What lessons did we learn? Where do we go from here? What kind of support do our students need and how can we provide it?

Expanding Wellness

Kingswood Oxford’s Wellness Team, comprising counselors, deans, academic skills specialists, and the school nurse, has identified the development of five key social-emotional skills as essential for our students: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making.

To help build these competencies, our school will sustain and expand two resources already in place: the Life Skills program at the Middle School, and the VQV program at the Upper School. These classes engage students in discussions about a range of issues including stress management, conflict resolution, leadership, drugs and alcohol, healthy relationships, mental health, and sexual health depending on their grade and age and provide coping strategies.

Managing Screen Time

Another key focus of these two programs is the healthy and safe use of technology. Because online learning during the pandemic separated students from one another physically, many became even more dependent on technology for social interaction. It is well known that social media can reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve. Many kids are being exposed to images and stories that they don’t have the context or the capacity developmentally to process or make sense of.

Enhancing Learning

Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking that teaching of social and emotional skills distracts and detracts from academic learning. In fact, our own experience as educators, as well as hundreds of academic studies, have shown that social and emotional learning actually enhances academic success. Students who are managing their emotions, relationships, and self-awareness well are much more likely to excel in their classes and have better life outcomes.

Building Equity and Inclusion

An important part of our vision is building equity and inclusion. Welcoming, respecting and valuing students of all ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures and identities are essential to nourishing an environment of social and emotional wellbeing for all of our students. By becoming a more equitable community that embraces diversity in all its forms, our school will also become a healthier emotional community. 

Fulfilling Our Vision

Our school’s Strategic Vision summons us to engage students in learning opportunities beyond our campus and to “develop compassionate collaborators, ethical problem solvers, and active citizens who lead and serve in the wider community.” What could be a more effective way of nurturing these future leaders than helping them build a lifelong foundation of social and emotional health?

A Mindful Education

By Kata Baker, Upper School Science Teacher, Head Coach Girls Swimming, Form Three Dean

We talk a lot about “managing” in education. “Good management” is generally held in high regard because it suggests students who achieve this skill are on the path toward accomplishing their goals – and impressive ones at that.

We say that students should manage their time, manage their stress, and manage their workload. This often means juggling several honors or Advanced Placement courses with an elective, Model United Nations, a varsity sport, and theater rehearsals. 

We say that students with good time management skills will be able to research, write and edit an English paper while cramming for a history test and preparing for a debate tournament the next day. We might even describe such students as “managing their stress well.”

Crisis Management

“Management,” in its essence, means “authority.” It implies having control or facing challenging odds and “coming out on top.” By using the word “management” in education, we’re subconsciously acknowledging that there ISN’T enough time, there IS too much work, and that students SHOULD feel an unbearable amount of stress – but that we want them to trudge through anyway. 

Under this mindset, putting together a “successful” four-year education for high-school students requires students to forget about discovering their true interests, abilities, and values, and instead to check off boxes and keep score – courses taken, clubs joined, sports played, leadership positions acquired, volunteer work performed. Students become so busy with everything, that they actually commit to nothing.

Education, when not tended and nurtured with the support and guidance of mindful adults, can easily become a goal-oriented, process-blind way of approaching life. The result is a school culture that values accomplishments over authenticity, performance over purpose, and superficiality over substance. This is not what teachers want for their students. 

Yes, curriculum and classroom lessons should invigorate, challenge and stretch students. Yes, it’s natural there will be time limits; teachers want to make productive use of the 60 minutes they have with their students. Yes, there is a task, a goal – work! And, yes, students will feel challenged. There IS some stress. 

All these things, in moderation, create a joyful, invigorating, and powerful education. But when pressure, deadlines, and rigor become excessive, teachers and students are simply managing.

Mindfulness, Balance, and Self-awareness

The role of teachers, advisors, and parents – the beautiful triangular support system our school provides – is to think mindfully about the life each student wants to live and about how to help each student strive for balance. 

Here’s what I wish for our students:  

• Quality over quantity. Sample, and then choose. ONE THING. Take an A.P. course only if you’re in love with the subject. Commit to one club that you can’t imagine not being a part of.

• Lead with you and your interests. 

• Listen to your body. We’re all designed to manage some stress. We naturally respond by releasing hormones that trigger a productive and appropriate response. Stress isn’t something we stifle or ignore, but we have to be thoughtful about how to react to it. 

• Learn how and when to say NO. Set boundaries. Set bedtimes. Know when enough is enough. When you decline a request for your time and participation, there’s no reason to apologize. Walk away with dignity and respect for your own well-being. It’s not that you’re not enough; it’s that the extra work and worry are too much.

• Build time into your schedule for the essential three R’s: recreation, refreshment, and rest.

• Do the thing. If you’re gonna’ do it, do it right. Dig in. Work hard, stop wasting time, and get it done. If you’re thoughtful about selecting to do what you love, this will come naturally. 

• Choose mindfulness, not management. By seeking an awareness of your true interests, virtues, values – and limits – your experience as a student will be more joyful and rewarding.     

Built-In Free Time Refreshes Middle Schoolers

Ann Sciglimpaglia, Head of the Middle School

If you’d entered the KO Field House between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m. on any Friday afternoon this winter, you would have seen 150 adolescents having fun. Amid laughter, conversations and squeals of merriment our middle school students were playing basketball and dodge ball, walking laps, drawing pictures, talking with their friends or simply sitting down and relaxing. You would have seen happy kids. 

But why weren’t these students in class?

Give the Kids a Break

Among the many lessons the recent pandemic has taught us is that middle schools students, after hours of supervised, structured experiences in classrooms, advisee groups, musical ensembles, sports teams, clubs and art studios, need the restorative power of unstructured free time. We realized that our students are so scheduled in their daily lives, not only in school, but in outside activities such as music lessons, campus and travel teams, that they need to escape from the daily regimen for a while, move their bodies and connect with their friends.

So beginning last September, we started setting aside half-hour periods when students were free to go outside and, during inclement weather, go to the Field House to rest, play and enjoy time with their friends. Teachers are present at these sessions and sometimes participate in their games and activities, but for the most part the faculty members stay in the background. For that half hour, the students are free to remove their masks and literally take a breather.

Free-Enterprise Zone

Our expansive Field House, with its three basketball courts, bleachers and hospitality room provides plenty of space to play dodge ball, spike ball, corn hole toss, wall ball, volleyball and handball. Students even devise their own games, concoct their own rules, and even set up March Madness-type tournaments. The field house also offers bleachers and a hospitality room where kids can simply sit, relax and interact with their friends.

Enriching Social and Emotional Well-Being

We’ve found that these sessions enhance our students’ social and emotional health. Middle schoolers need this time, not only for rest and play, but also for social interaction. During the pandemic, students have lost valuable opportunities to interact, socialize and work cooperatively, and this unstructured time allows them to freedom to plan, propose and problem solve together, as they negotiate friendships and make their own decisions. They need to talk with one another, resolve differences and figure out how to organize themselves. 

This time at school with classmates is especially cherished by Kingswood Oxford students. Because our students live in many different towns and cities, often quite distant from one another, they often don’t have the chance to spend time with their classmates during evenings and weekends. So these sessions provide that opportunity.

A Lift for Learning

While some might wonder whether these breaks consume valuable classroom time or distract students from their academic work, we’ve discovered that these sessions actually enhance their learning. Students return to the classroom after these sessions exhilarated, invigorated, and focused. Our teachers report that students pivot seamlessly from recess to class and are eager to dive back into academic work. This energizes their engagement in learning and makes their classes more productive, purposeful and stimulating.

Our teachers enjoy the chance for a break as well. Most of the teachers spend the break time with the students, enjoying watching them have fun and often chatting casually with them, but some teachers use the free time to catch up on tasks such as preparing for class, calling a parent or responding to emails. Others savor the opportunity to socialize and interact with colleagues. Whether they’re with the students or not, teachers appreciate the chance to decompress for a few minutes during a busy day.

The Pause That Refreshes

In short, building this unstructured time into our middle school day has not only provided a valuable respite for our students and teachers, but also enriched students’ and teachers’ social and emotional health, boosted our academic energy and significantly lifted community morale.