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by Lindsey Skerker

Back to school season is upon us, and this will be a fall unlike any other. New essential items have been added to back to school shopping lists, and families around the country are preparing for various schooling experiences, whether that be in-person, hybrid, or remote learning. Even within a given family’s household, schools can be deciding on vastly different plans for the fall. Some siblings might be online, others might be in school for half days or rotating blocks, and others might be fully back to school in-person but with precautions. In the days leading up to the new school year, and in the year to come, we as educators must harken back to our own education. Remember the phrase “Maslow Before Bloom” from college or graduate school? Essentially, it means that students basic needs must be met before they can begin to learn effectively. This has always been a key tenet of education, but now more than ever, we must keep this at the center of our thoughts, and not just for the first few weeks, but for the entire school year. As educators, we must continually prioritize regulation before education as we venture further into this frontier of teaching in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Over the past six months since COVID-19 hit the US, and in the ensuing summer months in light of the racial justice movement, thousands of children and families have experienced adversity or have had their eyes opened to the adversity of others.  Many people in the education field are familiar with Adverse Childhood Experiences (otherwise known as ACE’s). We as educators know that it is difficult to make good choices when one feels threatened, whether that’s a physical threat or a social-emotional threat. Coping skills cannot be used effectively in moments of threat and forget learning a new concept when a student does not feel safe physically or socioemotionally. We must ensure safety at all levels in the return to school, because learning can only effectively take place once the fundamental needs of safety and security are met.  Prioritizing regulation first is the key to helping students feel safe so that learning can take place. 

As our society has worked to effectively fight two pandemics (our global health pandemic and our societal pandemic of racism), we must keep in mind that students and faculty have been through a lot since the last day of school. In order to return to schools and campuses, we must maintain a trauma-informed approach to be sure that people feel safe physically, socially, and emotionally. Healing is at the core of this. Healing in connection to others and in connection to educational institutions will also be a key consideration to keep at the forefront of educational planning this year. Many students have used social media to make their lived experiences heard through the “Black at” movement. K-12 schools, universities, educators, and administrators are grappling with collective healing on multiple fronts, but it will be key to prioritize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts just as much as prioritizing COVID-19 protocols. Again, regulation before education. Maslow before Bloom.

Our schools, whether online, in-person, or hybrid, must finally maintain the importance of collective care, and not just for students, but for faculty and staff as well. Almost overnight, teachers had to move their entire curricula online and use a platform that had been very unfamiliar. Students too had to adjust to using the internet and their devices not just for fun and games, but as tools for their ever-changing education. By now, living environments and familial structures have been through many iterations of work, play, and a one-home schoolhouse. We’ve been through a lot, to say the least! Our healing and collective care for our coworkers and our students must focus on communal recovery from this collective societal trauma. If not, then how can we expect faculty to teach effectively? Much like students, faculty too must feel safe and supported in this new landscape of learning so that they can continue the work of educating children. It will be crucial to prioritize the regulation of the adults so that they can help to regulate the students. 

This notion of regulation before education should come as second nature to most of us who have worked with neurodivergent students. It is at the heart of our jobs, to keep our students’ safety and security at the top of mind. Prioritizing our students to Maslow so that they can Bloom is imperative in helping them feel confident to begin to learn new concepts or recall and connect these topics to their personal lives. Teachers can help to find ways to promote this type of regulation and collective care through their classroom culture, assignments, and activities. Validating, sharing, and most importantly, being heard, is at the core of the road to healing. However, the healing process will not be linear. It will have its fits and starts, but we must not let that discourage our work as educators. Continually prioritizing collective care, healing, and regulating while educating will be at the root of this work. 

Although much has changed in these last six months, there have been a few unexpected silver linings. Let us hope that some of these educational and societal changes will begin to right certain wrongs as we work towards maintaining more equitable educational practices.  Things may never go “back to normal” and in all honesty, why would we want to go back to “normal” when so much of that old way of life was incredibly unsustainable? Especially for our students, let us continue to be careful about this phrase of “going back to normal” when in reality, the focus should be on going forward, and going forward together, as a school community that collectively cares for and validates one another. Schools and institutions are mirrors of their larger environment and microcosms of society. With that in mind, let us use this new school year, the first in the new decade of the 2020s, to truly show what learning can look like when educators and administrators prioritize regulation before education.

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