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Partnerships and Building Relationships / Staff Leadership and Management

Redefining Student Interaction and Connection in a COVID-19 Environment

3 students at socially-distanced desks in masks

Throughout my time educating young people of all ages, from preschool to college, whether as an employee or employer, teacher or mother, I have spent the last 20 plus years utilizing a secret formula that my staff and I have come to label “Kid Whispering.”

What is “Kid Whispering” you ask? Well, it’s the ability to communicate with, relate to, teach, inspire, and empower kids, to do and be their best.

This is done through many means, both emotionally and physically, and on both the micro and macro scale. The micro scale includes the small scale of approaching kids at eye level or giving them some type of individual physical touch (high five, fist bump, hug), offering compliments, asking questions, and always greeting with a big toothy smile.  On the macro scale, it’s creating boundaries and limitations, instilling social emotional life lessons that all kids can carry with them, and maintaining high expectations for every student while accommodating their capability and learning style. In other words, I connect with and relate to kids in an individualized, holistic, empowering, and reaffirming way… and you know, something about this has ALWAYS WORKED… until now.

The thing about “Kid Whispering” is that it leans heavily on non-verbal communication, even in regards to academics, and in a COVID-19 society, non-verbal is a non-entity.

boy in glasses and maskOver the last several months, I had thought regularly about the social emotional effects of COVID-19 on the classroom. But when it really hit me was not in an educational setting. It was when I took my own 9-year-old son, Jack, to the optometrist. This was his first experience at an eye doctor, and I knew he was a bit apprehensive. As his little eyes peered at me over his mask, I smiled at him with reassurance… but he didn’t see it. He kept staring. Usually, I would have locked eyes and smiled several times, used my animated expressions to get him excited about the process, maybe made a funny face to make him laugh away his nerves, used a friendly high five to tell him how awesome he looks in his new spectacles, shaken the doctor’s hand to show him respect, watched the doctor’s face to see if he had concern with anything abnormal, and utilized a myriad of other non-verbal techniques to assess both Jack and the doctor’s feelings. Now, I could only substitute these by asking Jack repeatedly how he was, but didn’t want to interrupt the exam. I was conflicted because I wanted to pull down my mask and smile, but that is a big no-no. The experience just felt so…strange.

When I got home, I searched for pictures of the appointment which reflected back on the same experience with my now college-age daughter. There she was, huge smile on her face, posing in the new spectacles she tried on. In comparison, I had a picture of Jack, a socially-distanced, masked, sanitized, 9-year-old, not able to touch or try on glasses himself, and not a smile in sight. It really made me question how this pandemic will affect our youth, and how I could create a non-verbal communication plan with my staff, and for the students in my program.

We, as humans, rely primarily on non-verbal cues in face-to-face social settings. Experts estimate that 80% of communication is nonverbal, achieved through haptics (touch), proxemics (space), eye contact, facial expressions, and body gestures.

Now imagine how disruptive it is to our communications system to remove such a high percentage of our communication mechanisms. We can’t have physical touch… our facial expressions are unclear… our voices are muffled… not to mention the underlying fear that now accompanies social interaction… these major disruptions require important resolving interventions!

As adults, teachers, administrators, and parents, we are very aware of our non-verbal communication. For example, we have all learned that crossed arms, lack of eye contact, intense eye contact, body language, posture, and tone of voice are unique ways we relay how we are feeling to others. I believe that in these new masked and muffled settings, children will struggle understanding and recognizing these expressions, fall behind regarding social emotion skills, and struggle to read important non-verbal emotional cues. Beyond that, they will suffer from what I have termed “emotional dis-interaction,” which I would define as the lack of emotional non-verbal conveyance in social communication. So, what does this mean for young people? Really, we should ask ourselves, what does this mean for us, as well. We need a plan for our children, for heading back into the classroom, and for our youth programs. Let’s start by examining a few issues and the suggestions I made for my staff.

1 – On the first day of school, or with your child at home, talk about the changes they may notice when communicating with their friends, grandparents, and teachers. They will have to give people space… have to touch as few material items as possible… they should keep their masks on snug and keep appropriate distance from others. It is important to speak with children first to avoid the disappointing moment where they are dismissed from a hug or left hanging from a high five. Make this structure and those expectations clear from the beginning for your children. Also let them know that even with these new changes, we are going to have some exciting fun ways to communicate with one another!

2 – Explain how you will each have to “live” in a bubble! They can pretend they are surrounded by a giant blue bubble or force field, and they can’t go any closer than what their bubbles will allow. This bubble will help kids to understand what social distancing means. What will kids keep in their bubble? How will they decorate it? Can they draw a picture of their bubble? Have them present their bubbles to other students. They can practice ‘bubbling’ by walking towards one another and bouncing off a friend’s bubble. This is sure to get laughs and a bit of buy in!

3 – With your children or students, or within your district, develop a quick system that includes sign language and other communicative gestures. You can have unique signals or utilize American Sign Language for a hug, smile, surprise, and many other gestures. How fun!

Illustrations of non-verbal signs to communicate feelings

4 – Notice how facial expressions look UNDER our masks! Can we look for clues? Show them how your smile looks underneath the mask. Do your eyes get scrunchy with joy? Do your cheeks get wider? Does your forehead get crinkly? How about when you are surprised? Do your eyes get wider? As a teacher or a parent, play a game and see who can guess what emotion you are feeling!

5 – Give more verbal feedback. As our non-verbal skills are weakening, let us put more effort into the verbal. An increase of verbal communication, including compliments, and feelings statements will be very important. Saying, “You made me smile,” “I feel sad,” “I’m so surprised,” “How are you feeling,” “Do you need help,” will be very important for children in this new environment.

6 – Chant! Foster a sense of community by including quiet chants and sayings, rather than physical touch or closeness. For example, we can’t slap hands while walking by each other in the hallway, but one student can say, “All for one.” and the other, “One for all!” They can do this by making a ‘smile’ sign or doing your classroom signal.

7 – Speak with your children or students about tone and volume. They might have the tendency to yell or speak much louder with their mask on. This can come off as aggressive or angry to their peers or siblings. Remind them the importance of HOW you say something, and at what level is appropriate.

8 – Use 54321 Checks. If you are teaching a group, you can ask the entire group regularly, “How are you feeling?” Children can hold up fingers on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being “I’m happy and confident”; 2 being “I am feeling okay”; 3 being “I’m a bit worried”; 4 being “I might need a “cool down” soon”; and, 5 being “I’m very angry or worried.” This will give students the opportunity to convey non-verbally what they may have previously conveyed through a frown.

9 – Although we may not be able to high-five or fist-bump, you can create many different alternatives with your students. Think “Wifi” high-fives, where you can pretend high-five from a distance. Air bumps with assorted fallout. Quiet hand jives. You can create a special one for family, a classroom, or even your school. There are so many options to entertain from afar!

10 – Finally, draw on masks and personalize if possible. Bring your favorite interests, hobbies, and sayings to the forefront. Bring the individual humanity to this difficult requirement.

It is my hope that, as parents and educators, we can create new communication systems to help address the non-verbal communication gap we will all be facing for the indefinite future. It will be important to utilize both preventative and proactive measures, similar to the above, while accomplishing this task. We are all in this together, and how we communicate with one another, and our youth, will have an impact on students in the future!

For breakfast, I had leftover birthday cake from my son Jack’s 10th birthday (HA!) But usually you will see me with a LARGE cup of coffee, a banana, and a few scrambled eggs!

Author: @susancs

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