One of the most concerning, yet under recognized impacts of the pandemic is the emotional and psychological blow it has delivered to the health of students. For far too many students, the experiences of the past several months are tinged with feelings of isolation, separation, and disconnectedness.
Many of the activities to which they look forward have been curtailed or eliminated. Hanging out with and meeting new friends carries the risk of infection and illness and exposure for vulnerable family members. Sports and other activities have often been cancelled or delayed. Community events and activities have largely been called off for this year. As a result, the lives of far too many young people have grown smaller, depression has come calling, and loneliness has been a too frequent companion. Return to school this fall has been a lifeline for many students, but even school is not what it was before the pandemic.
We know the potential and importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) to carry students through this time and beyond. However, SEL activities are often confined to classroom lessons, in-school activities, and school-based support systems for vulnerable students. While these experiences can build skills and provide support, they do not always extend to life beyond the classroom and school.
Unless students can transfer and apply what they learn and continue to build their skills in other areas of life, the SEL investment we are making is likely to have a superficial and temporary impact. Fortunately, there is a proven, powerful, and accessible strategy we can tap to help students make this important transition. It also provides a powerful counterbalance to feelings of depression, isolation, and loneliness.
That strategy is meaningful service to others. Numerous studies have shown service to others to be a strong antidote to stress, depression, and loneliness. Further, service can build social skills, expand person-to-person connections, increase feelings of self-worth, support career exploration, build a sense of purpose, and support academic learning in applied settings.
Of course, the pandemic has shifted the landscape for engaging in service. The need for physical distancing and other means to counter virus spread must be respected. Still, opportunities to offer service abound and may be even more important than before the pandemic.
Service can take many forms. Some activities and projects may be undertaken by individual students. Others may offer the opportunity to collaborate with classmates and organizations and be a part of efforts larger than themselves. Some activities may by physical. Others may be virtual. Some may provide assistance to those in need. Others may focus on solving a problem. The possibilities are nearly endless.
After introducing the concept, benefits, and importance of service, we can brainstorm with students possible ways they can provide service. Some ideas may tap current interests and hobbies. Some may focus on the needs of which students are aware. We may even invite students to research ideas and report on promising possibilities. However, we must be certain that in the end, students feel ownership for and see the importance and value of the service activities and projects selected.
At first students may struggle to identify opportunities to serve in light of the restrictions they face, especially if they have limited experience. If they need ideas to get started, here a few possibilities:
- Tutoring and mentoring younger students
- Offering virtual companionship to shut-ins
- Volunteering at online food, clothing, and other resource centers
- Performing socially distanced yard clean-ups, snow removal, etc.
- Delivering meals and collecting donations
- Conducting online surveys and identifying people in need of services
- Assembling protective masks for donation
Equally important to the experience of serving can be reflection on the meaning and learning that service generates. We need to be sure to stay connected with students as they make sense of their experience and appreciate the benefits it has offered to them. What they learn and how the experience changes their psychological and emotional well-being can be amazing.