Not All Kids Are Alright: COVID Schooling, Resiliency and Toxic Positivity

Over the course of the past few years and most certainly during COVID, much has been said and written about resiliency. Just Google search “resilience and COVID” and you will find countless articles from scholars to basement bloggers like me.

We’ve come to use the term so loosely.

When it comes to schooling, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that “kids are resilient.” 

Are they? If so, to what extent?

As a parent and educator, my concern is that students may have hit their max load with all things COVID, Zoom, Google Classroom and the constant changes between in-school and remote learning that has isolated so many. For a young person to be resilient, a set of skills along with a mindset needs to be nurtured. It’s not easy.

I’m forty, educated, privileged and have struggled during the past 16 months. I’ve been afforded opportunities to embrace self care and know how to self-regulate to some extent. I’m resilient up to a point – I’m still learning.

Thus, why do we insist that students are resilient when a framework to embed such practices in may schools and districts are lacking. For example, the Centre of Child Development at Harvard University has done exceptional work supporting families and staff during the COVID pandemic. The centre notes that resiliency “can help us get through and overcome hardship. But resilience is not something we’re born with—it’s built over time as the experiences we have interact with our unique, individual genetic makeup. That’s why we all respond to stress and adversity—like that from the COVID-19 pandemic—differently.”

As shared, resilience is something that must be taught. Unfortunately, it’s become part of the toxic positivity vernacular that is doing more harm than good. Rather than leaning into vulnerability and required action, we’ve walked away from what truly matters. How can we fully expect or assert that students (or staff) are resilient when we’re not necessarily or intentionally teaching them how to be or worse – not building the culture to be. The word resilience is becoming dangerous, as it continues to be appropriated by adults or “leaders” to mask inaction and to deflect responsibility at the most critical of times. 

We’re trying to convince ourselves that kids are resilient, as a justification for giving them less of what they actually need. This facade, has the potential to greatly erode a students’ ability to achieve their success. COVID should have reminded us that students, and all those who make learning possible, need more of the good and not less. Specifically, students need self-regulation skills to ensure their ability to be resilient. Resilience is not born out of hardship but is a response to it. Thus, safe and nurturing places need to exist where resiliency can grow and be utilized during the most challenging of times. From smaller class sizes in response to COVID in schools to truly measuring the workload for staff in all sectors, a culture of well-being is needed more now than ever. However, rather than taking away stressors, more continues to mount.

Thinking about COVID and the school year ahead, I can’t help but play a scene from Netflix’s Fear Street: 1978 in my head.

A horror trilogy based on R.L. Stines’ Fear Street book series, the films provide a window into deep conversation about generational trauma and teenage anxiety. Centred around the gruesome killings in Shadyside, a town plagued by a history of violence, a group of teens navigate a century old curse.

The second film, Fear Street: 1978 pays homage to all things Friday the 13th with a Crystal-Lake-esque camp setting. As a teenage girl is bullied beyond measure, she has an encounter with her older sister who is also a camp counsellor. In a tense conversation about family, identity and community, the younger sister asserts that everyone is “cursed.” This is to say that everyone arrives at a particular time and place with their own hardships and potential realities.

Still from Fear Street: 1978

This particular scene resonates so deeply as it speaks to the both “Small and Big T” trauma that shapes individual lives. Reflecting on the past 16 months, we’ve all been through some sort of trauma. We’ve all navigated what feels like a cursed world. This is not to be negative or a pessimist but rather honest and truthful about the challenges we’ve faced and the road ahead. There’s been plenty of good but also plenty of bad. We can’t avoid the bad. In doing so, the toxicity will take over.

Students, parents, caring-adults, teachers, administrators and all who make schooling happen, have been through so much. Exhaustion is elevated, stress is mounting, unknowns are in abundance and thus now is the time for intentionality, action, support, empathy, deep care and renewed mindset.

With all of this, students and educators alike, will be arriving back to school this August and September after being through so much. We cannot expect them to be resilient and we need the support in place that will allow schools – and people – to truly thrive.

We need more good not less.  

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