As educators, we always need to be alert to the moods, messages, and mental states of our students. When their behavior shifts from engaged to withdrawn, from talking nonstop to total silence, from carefree to cautious, and so on, we are seeing signs and symptoms of situations that may need our attention. It is important that we not only notice these and other indicators, but that we also take action and respond to them.
However, there are specific occasions when our students particularly need us to have our “radar” up and our alert observation fully engaged. These are times when the emotional states of our students may be signaling that all is not right, and our immediate attention is needed. Let’s examine four of these times when students may need our increased attentiveness.
The first and most frequent times are Fridays, especially Friday afternoons. During the week, students may face a tough evening, with fighting, disruption, and chaos, but they know that in the morning, they will return to school where routine, predictability, and adults who monitor and care for them will be present. The next day may also mean a nourishing breakfast and filling lunch. However, the weekend may mean two days of uncertainty, anger, and violence. It also may mean little to no food and several nights of little sleep. In our classrooms, we need to be especially aware of mood shifts, reluctance to leave, and even angry and disruptive outbursts. Of course, not every student who faces these challenges may show obvious signs. Often, children and young people from families that seem to be healthy and happy are living in something far from it. We need to be careful not to confine our focus exclusively to students who may have a history of or come from families where disruption and chaos are obvious.
A second crucial period of time is those days leading up to extended calendar breaks. Like weekends, breaks in the calendar and extended days away from school can mean loss of routine, extended disruption, little sleep, and not enough food. Additionally, adults in the lives of our students may experience additional pressures and frustration during these times that will make the lives of our students even worse. Increased anxiety, nervousness, anger, and sadness can be signs that students are fearful or dreading the time away and may even need additional support.
A third circumstance emerges when parents may be about to receive bad news concerning their children, such as those days when report cards are sent home, parents have been called in for a conference, or we need to reach out with less-than-positive news. Several studies have shown that when report cards are sent home, especially leading up to weekends or holidays, reports of child abuse go up. Adults in the lives of our students may respond to disappointment and take out frustrations on their children and adolescents by engaging in physical punishment and mental abuse.
Another time when students may experience strong emotions is during days leading up to significant social and school events. Students who have not been invited, are ineligible, or for whatever reason will not be able to participate can find these days filled with shame, embarrassment, and disappointment in being “left out.” While this type of experience may be part of growing up and being human, they also can be painful times when students need our attention. To us, it may feel as though a student is overreacting, and we may find ourselves thinking that they should not be so upset; for the students in these circumstances, however, life can feel unfair and even hopeless.
Of course, noticing that a student is feeling upset or anxious is only the first step. Depending on the situation and emotional trauma the students is experiencing, we have several options to provide support. Here are some actions we can consider once we have assessed the situation:
- We might assure the student that we are paying attention to them and that we care and are willing to listen. Our empathy and support may be enough to help the student gain perspective and face what lies ahead.
- After listening to the student, we may be able to help them develop a plan to find their way through the situation. We might explore some safe and healthy options or identify someone they can contact if they feel unsafe or need a higher level of support.
- We may find that we need to alert someone in the student’s life to monitor and engage in the situation. Sometimes a relative or other connected adult can be the person to provide the support and assistance needed.
- Sadly, there also are times when we need to alert someone with the skills and authority to intervene. We may feel reluctant, not wanting to potentially overreact before something happens, but we also have a responsibility to do what we can to be certain that students will be safe.
The lives of our students are frequently complicated and challenging. Some of what they experience is a normal part of growing up, and we may need to help them to build skills and strategies to cope and grow. In other circumstances, we may need to lean in, provide our support, or connect them with resources that can protect them and keep them safe. Regardless, our entry point is our attention and concern. Our students need us to watch over and care about them; what we notice, what action we take, and what support we give can make a world of difference.