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Social Connectedness during COVID-19

By: Nigel Johnson, Board Member of NAMI Palm Beach County

As a mental health professional working in our public schools I have a unique opportunity to observe the resiliency, compassion, and love our school staff bring to work each day. While we currently work to keep safety in mind by being physically distanced, we are working overtime to remain socially connected.

COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, and our students and school staff have not been spared. Our teachers now teach live and virtually, and our students are learning on screens more than ever. Although teachers have had to adapt the curriculum, staff have also had to adapt to the social and emotional needs of our students.

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to join the virtual classes at my school site. In doing so, I am able to recognize our students and to help them feel that they are still a part of our community. When students exhibit positive behaviors, such as being respectful or friendly with their peers online or using supportive virtual features like “clapping” and the “thumbs up” icons, I acknowledge them and encourage this behavior. Students in the classroom receive certificates to recognize these positive traits, and now I also mail them to the homes of students who are learning virtually. I encourage the students to give each other a hearty applause for a job well-done. Even if this is heard through the computer speakers, it still has a huge impact on our students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging.

One of my jobs is to teach our students to build bridges. I work with them to develop self-awareness, and also to put themselves into the other’s shoes. One practice I incorporate is to have students complement each other. One technique I have used is to have them write letters to each other, with affirmations, or even have them list things they like about another student or things that student is good at. I encourage random acts of kindness.

I also work at providing my students with positive feedback and encouragement, turning negatives into positives. Instead of saying “You like to talk a lot”, I might say “You are an outspoken leader”. I work to “fill buckets” by verbally acknowledging their strengths and accomplishments. At the school site, I support students by taking walks, giving us time to talk; students know my door is always open to discuss issues they may be facing. During the adjustments with COVID-19, I am also always available through email or virtual meetings.

Our teachers are on the front line of this work, so I also make a point to support the school staff. I pop into the virtual class sessions and support the teachers. In the morning I send out motivational emails to staff to uplift them as they prepare to work with the students.

As we embark upon the month of February, in this unprecedented time in which we are living, I am grateful for the opportunity to share another perspective of what love can look like in 2021. Beyond candy hearts and greeting cards is the opportunity for true human compassion and connection.

About the Author: Nigel Johnson has a passion for people. He especially likes to work with individuals with disabilities, including social and emotional challenges. Nigel was drawn to NAMI as he has perspective on mental health from multifaceted views. He wants to learn, share, and spread knowledge on mental and behavioral health. A youth mentor and a school behavioral health professional, he has also worked with at-risk youth ages 11-16 who were experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges in a therapeutic residential environment.




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