Talking Points for Tough Times (COVID and Beyond)

When you notice a student struggling do you ever wish they’d freely open up? Use these talking points to check in with students

When you notice a student struggling do you ever wish they’d freely open up to you about tough times if you try to talk to them about it?  You have good intentions after all and want to be supportive. Use These Social and Emotional Talking Points to Check in with Students 

Wanting to engage with your student about their tough times?  Social-emotional learning to the rescue!

Challenging current events affect most people to some extent.  Youth are not immune to the effects of difficult times either.

Adults may be able to process their situation, find ways to cope, and have the words to talk about it, whereas children may not be able to articulate the things going on in their minds.  And by children, kids ranging in age from pre-k through 12th grade.

That can be a challenge for educators.  You may see behavioral, social, or academic changes in your student.   Something seems amiss so you might attempt to check-in with your learner about it but not get the response you were hoping for.

These are tough time talks.  Is there a way to check-in with your student about tough times?

Social-emotional talking points are an effective strategy you can try that help kids feel comfortable speaking up.  We will uncover that in this post!  

We will peel back the layers by first taking a look at how kids may process and respond to tough times socially and emotionally.  From there we will cover talking points so you are equipped to check-in about hard things with your students.

Social And Emotional Response To Tough Times

You see your student or students struggling with something.  How do you start to inquire what’s on their mind?  With understanding.  In other words, seek understanding by learning about how younger populations react to their trials.

Tough Times Continuum

Imagine a long line labeled “tough times reponses.”  Along this line, you find social and emotional reactions that are not limited to a specific context but rather vary, across a continuum.  Now imagine a group of students spread out from one end of the line to the other.  

On one end you may find kids with a low level of impact.  In the middle, you may find a medium level of struggles.  On the other end, you may find a high level of difficulty.  

Youngsters are on a continuum when responding to tough times socially and emotionally.  They fall on different points of the line.  Let’s gain a deeper understanding of our kids and explore what some of these points on the line look like. Remember that students can vary in how they exhibit these different characteristics.

Mental Response To Tough Times

Some youth react to tough times mentally.  This means that their thoughts and actions may communicate what they are going through.

If something is weighing heavily on a student’s mind you might notice difficulty with focus and concentration.  

Other times kids might misbehave or get into power struggles to gain control because they feel out of control in other parts of their life.

Some kids may pretend their situation doesn’t exist by trying not to think about their tough times.  Not acknowledging it helps them cope with life and allows them to feel it doesn’t exist.  Not talking about it or carrying on as normal are some ways they might try to disguise it.  

Energy Response To Tough Times

A student’s energy can be impacted by difficult situations.  They might appear to be doing okay in some parts of their life, like keeping up with school work, but you might see disturbances in their basic daily functions.  

The energy to keep up with simple activities like sleeping or eating can change.  Daily life routines take energy but might get neglected because it’s too much to deal with on top of everything else.  On the flip side kids can put in a lot of energy to appear “normal” to mask their tough times.

When it comes to things like hobbies or interests energy levels can vary too.  Students might put all of their energy into an interest to create a diversion.  They might withdraw from an activity if they are not feeling up to doing it.

Emotional Response To Tough Times

When kids go through hard times their emotions can take a hit.  However, how they express their emotions is not always the same.  

Students who typically display emotional regulation may show signs of irritability, anger, sadness, worry, or guilt.  Children can experience a wide array of emotions as they try to process and make sense of their experiences.  Some emotions surface because they feel out of control or don’t know how to handle the situation.

You might see emotional regression in other kids where they act younger than their age. Clinginess or attention seeking behavior helps them feel secure in uncertain times.

In keeping with the spirit of a continuum, emotions can be up or down, depending on the day.  There is no right or wrong way for a student to feel when faced with tough times.  

Physical Response To Tough Times

Difficult situations can have a physical effect on kids.  Stress from situations puts an impact on our bodies.  Students may experience headaches or stomach aches.  Others may feel fatigued or worn out.  Feeling jittery and sweaty can be a physical response to hardships as well.

How a student feels physically can ebb and flow too.  Some days they might feel great and other days not so much.

Social Response To Tough Times

How do tough times influence student relationships? You might see classmates withdraw from their peers or social situations.  Depressed feelings, wanting to be left alone or embarrassment might be contributing factors to those behaviors. 

Other times kids might avoid social situations that trigger reminders of their tough times.  Things they once enjoyed are no longer enjoyable.  

On the other hand kids might try to distract themselves from their hardship and become overly social.  Making plans to have an abundance of fun times with friends might help them feel better.

With all of these points on the continuum what you observe in your student will vary.  Other influences on your learners include age, context of situation, home life, personality or cultural background.  

There is no right or wrong way for a person to respond to tough times.  Whatever you see in your student is normal and valid.

Now that you have a better understanding socially and emotionally of what your student may experience during tough times let’s look at talking points to help you bring up a touchy subject with them.  These tips support their social and emotional needs.  The goal of these conversation starters is to help them feel comfortable enough to share with you.  

Social and Emotional Talking Points To Address Tough Times With Students

You see your student going through a tough time.  You may not know the details of their situation but you see a change in them.  You want to check-in but what do you say?

To avoid a “nothing” or “I don’t know” response there are some effective communication strategies that might help you and your learner have a fruitful conversation.

Some things to keep in mind as you initiate a dialogue.  These types of conversations don’t have to solve their problems right then and there. Rather they are intended to give you an inside peek into your student’s tough times.

Some realistic outcomes might include learning some strategies you can use in your classroom to better support your student at this time.  You might be inclined to alert student support services to talk to your learner.  Your kiddo might feel someone is on their side and more supported, or feel relief that they had a listening ear.  Or you might get a brief interaction.

Whatever the end result from your check-in, if you go in with good intent you’re attempting to let your student know you care.  Let’s support our students social and emotional needs by looking at talking points to help you get started with checking-in with your student about tough times

Social and Emotional Check-in

So what are these tools to help you initiate a conversation with students?  The technical term for this is called microskills, which is a specific set of skills used to enhance communication.  You can simply think of it as a way to talk to get others to talk.

These conversation strategies bring intentionality into the conversation.  It gives your check-in purpose and meaning as you keep the receiver of your messages in mind.  You have their best interest at heart for the duration of the conversation.  These talking points are the path to engagement with your student.  Because they are interpersonal in nature you also will be addressing their social and emotional matters.

Engage With Non-verbal Cues

Your actions can speak louder than words when starting a conversation with your student.  Another term for this is called attending behavior.  How do your behaviors invite a person to talk?

You can communicate that with attentive gestures.  Eye contact, relaxed posture, leaning forward are some examples.

For younger students it might be getting down to their eye level so the child isn’t looking up while you’re looking down and talking.

For older students it might be pulling out two chairs and inviting a student to sit and chat rather than having a barrier like a desk in between you two.

Focus your face and ears on your student and free yourself from distractions like working at your desk or watching the clock during the conversation.

Engage With Questioning

Form your questions to elicit information.  Effective questions are asked without placing judgement or bias on the other person.  Can you tell the difference between asking, “You always look angry, what’s going on?” vs “Can you share with me what’s on your mind?”  What if your student really wasn’t angry?  

Effective questions are open ended rather than closed.  How much information can you get between, “Are you sad?” vs “How are you feeling today?”

For younger students keep your word choice simple.  You might need to use some close ended questions if you’re not getting much of a response from open ended.  There is a time and place for closed questions.

For older students it’s important to refrain from placing assumptions into your questions before you gather information.  

Engage With Responding

Accurately responding to what your student says tells them that you hear and understand them.  This can be very validating to them.  Paraphrasing is one way to accurately respond.

To paraphrase you simply repeat back what you heard your student say.  For example, “Let me see if I heard you correctly.  What you are telling me is…”  Then wait for your learner to confirm that you understand.  

Asking clarifying questions like, “can you explain this a bit more,” or “can you help me see this better,” is another way to accurately respond to what is being communicated.  This is helpful when you’re not sure how to paraphrase what you just heard.

For younger students continue to keep wording simple.  Also include simple phrases like, “I see,” nodding, or other cues to show you are actively listening.

For older students you can break down bigger bits of information into smaller chunks to communicate your accurate response like,  “So first you said….then you did…and that makes you feel…”

Engage With Affirmations

If appropriate to the check-in, affirm what your student says. This can go a long way in communicating support, understanding and validation all things students going through tough times seek out.

To affirm you simply state back, verbatim, what your student said.  If the child says, “I get overwhelmed when I have too much work,” you affirm by saying, “You get overwhelmed when you have too much work.”  If you hear, “I don’t like it when my brother argues with me,”  you say “You don’t like it when your brother argues with you.”

Simply switch out the “I” with “you” and repeat back what you heard your student say.

Engage With Observations

If you are not getting much of a verbal response you might want to try sharing what you observe in your student. Doing so might provide them a path to open up or give them words to start steering the conversation. This also serves as a great conversation opener.

It could sound something like this, “I have been noticing lately you come into class looking tired and not smiling much.  In the past I have seen you start your day with an energetic and cheerful look on your face.”

Try to keep your observations based on the information you see in front of you and not bring in assumed reasons for why you see those things in your student.  You want to avoid placing judgement or bias on your statements.  You want to come across as open minded and welcoming.  Children tend to shut down if they feel they are being viewed incorrectly.

Putting It All Together

You might be wondering, what does this all look and sound like?  Here is a sample dialogue.

Let’s set the scene.  Your 5th grade student used to be an eager participant in class.  Raised hands, answered questions and turned in work on-time.  They were well behaved and helpful in class.  Over the last few weeks you notice they are withdrawn.  They sit at their desk but don’t participate anymore.  Homework handed in is either late or incomplete.  They are not helpful and now speak back to you disrespectfully.  What’s going on you wonder?  

Sample Social and Emotional Dialogue 

Teacher:  “Jamie, before recess I’d like to check-in with you for a few minutes.”

Jamie: “Okay.”

Teacher pulls out 2 chairs from a table and gestures for Jamie to sit down.  Teacher sits down across from Jamie and leans forward slightly.  Gives eye contact.

Teacher:  “Jamie I’m wondering how things are going for you lately?”

Jamie: “What do you mean? I’m fine.”

Teacher: “Well I noticed you have been quiet in class.  Sometimes your homework is late or not done.  “I’ve also heard you talk back to me.  Can you talk to me about that?”

Jamie: “Well…my parent lost their job a few weeks ago.  And I’m worried about losing our house.  So I don’t get my work done.”

Teacher: “So you’re saying you’re worried about losing your home because your parent lost their job?”

Jamie: “Yeah.  I can’t focus on school right now.”

Teacher: “I see, you can’t focus here at school. I wonder if there is something we can do at school to help you?  Would you be interested in looking at ways I can help?”

Did you pick up on all the different talking points?  Can you see how they help gather information in a non-confrontational, welcoming and supporting way?  That is the point of a social and emotional check-in!

The next time you notice your student going through a tough time try out these talking points.  You will be able to understand and check-in with your student about tough times that are engaging and support their social and emotional needs. You will be equipped to support your learner and play a role in getting them through their hardships.

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