Emotions are contagious.

During a time of crisis such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to feel scared. It’s normal to feel stressed, anxious, or angry. But especially for teachers, parents, and other adults working closely with children, Lori Desautels says it’s important to understand how those feelings can affect those around you.

The Butler University College of Education Assistant Professor, whose work in educational neuroscience focuses on strategies to help students who have experienced adversity or trauma, is now developing new resources specific to this time of pervasive fear and uncertainty.

“When this started, we were all thrown,” Desautels says. “Even in that first week when we started seeing places close, schools began reaching out to me, concerned about how to support their students through the switch to e-learning.”

For many children, school is a safe place. It’s where their friends are, where they’ve built connections with teachers and other adults outside the home. For those who were already dealing with adversity, this global pandemic can add another layer to the trauma.

Families are already seeing the effects, Desautels says. Children are growing scared, restless, or angry about all they’ve lost this year. When it comes to schoolwork, some are just shutting down.

So over the last few weeks, school districts across Indiana and as far as Iowa and Colorado have asked Desautels to help with this transition. She is now creating weekly videos on topics related to COVID-19—like this one where she discusses the power of nonverbal communication, or this one with strategies to help calm the brain.

“I’m trying to keep up with emails from schools asking how they can help their families and their teachers,” she says. “We are seeing a collision of roles: Teachers need to also parent, and parents need to also teach. Some parents have lost their jobs or are feeling other pressures, putting them in a survival state of just trying to function. This is where emotional contagion is happening. The stress of all of this is felt by our children.”

According to Desautels, there are three conditions that the mind just can’t handle, and the COVID-19 pandemic hits all of them.

  1. Chronic unpredictability: To help ease the stress of this widespread uncertainty we’re experiencing, Desautels recommends building and following routines wherever possible. Even if kids can’t know when they’ll be able to go back to school, parents and teachers can create predictable schedules for things like meals and play time. Desautels also suggests setting up at-home “amygdala first aid stations”—designated areas where children can go to relax.
  1. Isolation: Desautels says building connections with students should always be a priority for teachers, but now more than ever, maintaining those relationships is key. When you can’t see kids in person each day, this means being extra intentional. “If you can,” she says, “reach out with a phone call or text. Remind students you are only a keyboard away if they need you. You could also use this time to write a letter of gratitude to each student, sharing a memory of them you will always cherish. Focus on connection: Academics should come second during this time.”
  1. Physical and emotional restraint: Look for opportunities to get moving and stay active. “I’m also encouraging teachers and parents to give kids a lot of choice, grace, and emotional wiggle room at this time,” Desautels says. “Give them some space. Let them feel safe with you.”

And just as parents and teachers try to ease their children’s anxiety, Desautels emphasizes the need to care for their own minds, as well.

“It takes a calm brain to calm another brain,” she says. “The good news is that our brains are built for resiliency. They are built to repair and to heal. They are constantly trying to find that balanced place where we can think clearly, pay attention, and focus.”

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager