As many schools in the U.S. figure out how to safely and fully resume in-person instruction, much of the focus is on vaccinations.
But there’s another type of “vaccine” that may be beneficial for some returning K-12 students that could be overlooked. Those are known as “behavioral vaccines.”
Behavioral vaccines are not some sort of serum to help control how children behave. There are no needles, shots or drugs involved. Behavioral vaccines are simple steps that educators and parents can take to help support child well-being throughout the day.
Those actions can be as easy as offering students a warm welcome when they enter the classroom. Studies have shown positive greetings can reduce disruptive behavior and increase academically engaged behavior. Written notes of praise from teachers or other students – such as a thank-you note for helping someone with a math problem – are another example of a behavioral vaccine. These sorts of notes have been found to reduce problem behavior during recess.
Behavioral vaccines can also entail activities like breathing exercises to help students feel calm or aerobic play to reduce stress. Each simple action can be used alone or in combination to deliver supports that promote well-being.
As a concept, “behavioral vaccines” have been around for centuries. Intended to prevent disease and promote public health, a behavioral vaccine is a simple action that can lead to big results. Think about hand-washing or seat belt-wearing – behaviors to promote physical well-being and prevent larger problems for individuals and within communities.
As a school psychologist who focuses on matters of student mental health, I believe behavioral vaccines can help improve the social, emotional and behavioral well-being of students. I also think these vaccines are especially important as schools seek to fully resume in-person instruction.
Over the course of the pandemic, there have been reports of increased teen stress, negative states of mind and even more suicide attempts as students struggle with isolation, disruption of their routines and remote-learning fatigue.
Since schools can play a critical role in child development, they represent an ideal venue for public health interventions. With those things in mind, here are five ways that schools can offer behavioral vaccines to returning students:
1. Build strong connections with every child
Positive relationships are key drivers of healthy development. Strong social connection buffers against other risks present in young people’s lives, such as belonging to a group that is seen as a minority, living in poverty or having family members who fall ill. When school provides supportive social connection, it can help reduce vulnerabilities.
Teacher support and connection has been shown to help students feel better about being in school. Behavioral vaccines focused on supportive connection can involve offering an enthusiastic hello when meeting, building confidence about assignments by giving wise feedback and encouraging students to ask questions. It can also involve taking interest in life outside of the classroom, and adding a daily routine of sharing appreciation for others.
2. Foster positive emotions
Positive emotions such as joy, pride and interest affect learning. Experiencing positive emotions helps children be more aware, focused and ready to solve problems.
A fancy curriculum or a lot of time is not needed – adults can embed simple, easy-to-do strategies throughout the school day. These strategies can include helping students visualize their best possible selves or practice calming breaths.
Figure out which techniques help children be their best. Some students may need to be physically active to boost positive emotions, whereas others may benefit from just being quiet and sitting still.
3. Include adults
Behavioral vaccines can apply across the entire school system – including for every teacher and adult in the setting. Just as with students, teachers can benefit from opportunities to choose and incorporate strategies for reducing stress and bolstering well-being. Peer-to-peer written praise notes, for example, have been found to work for teachers as well as students to increase positive feelings and connection.
Student well-being is connected to teacher well-being. Since the classroom is the primary place for nurturing child well-being in school, prioritizing each teacher’s well-being is critical.
4. Be mindful of disciplinary practices
As students return to fully in-person classes, they may bring social, emotional and behavior challenges. Recent estimates suggest over 37,000 students have already lost at least one parent to COVID-19. Students also have missed time to learn and practice classroom skills, such as how to take turns, understand others’ perspectives or even work quietly. Being empathetic toward student experiences will be critical to reducing reliance on suspensions and expulsions.
School teams must carefully monitor their use of exclusionary discipline to make sure it does not disproportionately affect certain subgroups, such as Black students, boys or students with disabilities.
5. Recognize different student needs
In typical circumstances, children develop at different rates, times and ways. Every student will enter school with a different set of risks, some that were previously present and some magnified.
As British writer Damian Barr stated: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” Each child’s boat is different. Some will need more than others to keep moving in the right direction and stay afloat.
Schools need to be prepared to deliver different types and “doses” of behavioral vaccines. Having a variety of behavioral vaccines at the ready can help schools more quickly bring about well-being for all students.
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