By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
Originally written for the Association for Middle Level Education
I’m sure you have heard the following statements recently:
No crisis should ever go to waste.
Make the most of every opportunity.
Crisis either makes you or breaks you; creates you or destroys you.
I’m not sure how you’re responding, but I’ve been a little emotional since the command “to stay home” and currently the direction “to get out safely!” I’ve seen my neighbors get this virus: one passed away and the other survived but needed shoulder surgeries from a fall due to dehydration from the virus. I’ve had mixed emotions such as: despair from losing my neighbor and dog-sitter, gratitude that Spring is here, fear I just touched something, joy that I get to see my kids more (home from college), helplessness about friends/family losing jobs, and calm since I have more time to reflect. I love writing in my journal about what I’m learning in life, how I’m growing, and processing emotions that I don’t always have the time to process. And the more stress I experience, the more I feel the need to think, discuss, and/or write about my feelings, perceptions and responses. Taking the time to process in those ways has two-fold power:
- Opportunity to grow, improve, and practice resilience.
- Opportunity to process the range of emotions, allowing me to become more aware and solve some problems.
This article will give you the why, the how, and examples of powerful ways to routinely or sporadically reflect in order to change how you respond to your stressors or emotions. In fact, it is the best closure, for teachers and students, during this COVID-19 schoolyear.
What are Stress and Trauma and Why Is It Important to Process Them?
My favorite definition of stress is: the physiological response to a perception of a lack of control over an adverse situation or person. Stress is real to each person because it is a person’s perception of a situation (not an outsider’s opinion on it). Interestingly enough, some stress is good for us, but when stress becomes chronic, ongoing, unpredictable and unrelenting, it’s toxic to the brain and learning. Trauma can be defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event…” Some people will experience more chronic stress/trauma than others during this time based on experiences around them which shape their perceptions. That’s a problem because research shows that stress/trauma drastically lower the immune system’s power, impair memory, accelerate aging, increase inflammation and decrease ability to cope. But before you start to stress over your stress levels, know this: each person has control over how they will respond to stressors, which means that effective coping tools can make a huge difference during times of stress.
The Covid-19 issue will be gone one day – this distance learning and the unknown are not permanent. When we emerge from this time of adversity, we have the potential to see the benefits: it can build your resiliency factor, help you determine which coping tools work best for you, help you sort through uncertainty and confusion (awareness) and encourage you to think outside the box to solve problems. In fact, research has shown that individuals who go through challenging life experiences arise from them with a greater appreciation of life and more resilience to bounce back from future difficulties. One research study found that earning a college degree in a recession had lasting effects on job satisfaction and attitude. Research suggests that forced periods of uncertainty (adversity) could lead to increased flexibility, gratitude, and satisfaction later in life (Bianchi, 2013).
Coping tools will be a “must” right now, this summer and all of next school year (beyond as well). There’s one coping tool that can turn adversity into something beautiful for each person who practices it. Bonus! It’s one of the best ways to close your schoolyear.
Reflection Through Self-Expressive Writing: A Power Tool
“Reflection is a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences, in order to lead to a new understanding and appreciation” (Boud, Keough, & Walker, 1985). Reflective writing is a free, easily accessible, and versatile therapeutic exercise for anybody! Reflection can be expressed through drawings, discussions/talking, and/or writing.
My definition of reflection is: Valuable, relaxed time spent to deeply think about an important experience (design some questions/prompts) to extrapolate meaning from this experience, to organize the thinking about it, and to ultimately determine what went well, what could improve, and how to move forward. It might start with drawing or webbing and eventually, maybe, lead to talking about the thoughts. Finally, one should bring all of those pieces together in writing, translating those experiences into language which makes the experience more “graspable”. The ultimate goal is self-awareness, problem-solving, and personal growth – to get better!
Research supports this process too! Did you know that if you truly want to change your thinking patterns and behaviors, reflection usually precedes it? Reflection is a key ingredient to changing, growing, and getting better. American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey wrote, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from ‘reflecting’ on experience.” Researchers Stefano, Gino, Pisano and Statts, (March 2014) found that the effect of reflection on learning is correlated with greater perceived ability to achieve a goal, and this self-efficacy or agency (belief that we can meet our goals) can be the reason we persist when the going gets tough. When we regularly take the time for personal reflection, this time enables us to process and make events more meaningful. In fact, research shows (Glaze, 2001) that reflection times can help you improve your understanding of the context you work in, can change your perspective on issues, and can deepen your understanding of issues
Just in case you are not convinced that writing about how we feel is powerful, take a look at this supportive research:
- Participants who wrote about their most traumatic experiences for 15 minutes, four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
- Participants who wrote about the most stressful event of their lives experienced better health evaluations related to their illness (Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz, Kaeli, 1999).
- Writing about intensely positive experiences was associated with an enhanced positive mood along with significantly fewer health center visits for illness (Burton and King, 2004).
- James Pennebaker, researcher, professor and social psychologist at University of Texas Austin, found that people who experienced highly traumatic experiences and didn’t reflect on them through talking or writing had far more health problems than those who openly did share about their trauma (2004). He found that “depressive symptoms, rumination and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals” (20 minutes for 4 consecutive days). He even found students grades improved after self-expressive writing.
Teachers, as you are wrapping up the schoolyear, please use this list of reflection questions just for you that are super relevant for these COVID-19 times too. Enjoy reflecting so that you can process your feelings, grow and determine how you will improve remote learning next year. Here are a few to get your started:
- Who am I grateful for this past year and why?
- I learned the following about distance learning… and if we are going to engage in that practice next year, I will do the following the same/differently…
- This past school year, I experienced the following emotions…because of the following experiences… (use the Feeling Wheel).
Get the entire, free list of prompts here!
You will want to ensure that your students experience the power behind reflection as well. Use the steps below for your students to set up Self-Expressive Writing as a beautiful closure to this schoolyear AND as an on-going tool to encourage them to use throughout the summer. (BONUS: Set up self-expressive writing time every single day once school begins next year – students will have much to process through when they return, and so will you! This is truly the best gift you can give to them as you wrap up this school year). Here are a few self-expressive writing prompts for this end of the year to get you started:
- What do I like about distance learning and why? What didn’t I like about distance learning and why?
- What suggestions do I have for next year’s students and teachers if/when remote learning starts back up again? (Both the positive and growth opportunities.)
- What did I learn about myself as a “learner,” “problem-solver”, and/or “friend to others”?
Get the entire, free list of prompts here!
How can you Powerfully Set up Expressive Writing Time for your Students? (Distance-Learning Friendly Too)
- Share the power behind expressive writing with your students so there is more buy-in.
- Make sure the writing environment is peaceful (if remote learning is occurring, invite them to go outside under a tree, shut their bedroom door and sit in a cozy spot, maybe it is a couch with a great big lamp, try some classical music to block extraneous noise, etc.)
- Encourage students to use a special journal that has the expressive writing all in one location – reviewing thoughts and growth can be very encouraging. Research still supports good ol’ fashioned handwriting versus typing when it comes to expressive writing opportunities (Although, virtual learning platforms may need students to type). Choose a prompt that is fitting for that day, season, experiences in the community, etc. or give several choices since you may not know everything that went on in those children’s lives last night. See examples at these websites:
- positivepsychologytprogram.com (Tool Instructions & Reflection Prompts)
NOTE: The act of writing about any traumatic or minor stressful event, even if the writing was destroyed immediately afterward, still had positive effects on health.
- Determine how long this expressive writing time might take based on the choices that you give to your students and set a timer (some students need to increase their writing stamina and a timer could help). Suggestion: 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time. Choice is important since some topics may be too personal at that moment and time.
- Options: You can give them a list of Criteria for Success for this writing prompt(s), an exemplar and non-exemplar, ask them to help you design the requirements for this writing opportunity, or give them no expectations at all since it’s self-expressive writing. Teacher clarity is extremely important! The more you explain what the expectations are and include the students’ voices in the learning task, the more motivated students become to engage in the task. FYI: Don’t worry about spelling or grammar with this type of writing.
- Celebrate the writing if appropriate. Students can share if they want (this type of writing is very personal), you can give them some type of feedback or comments, or they can self-assess or invite a peer to give feedback (if and only if student chooses). In fact, let them choose the audience – self only, teacher only, other…
Other Fun End-of-Schoolyear Closure Ideas
- Celebration videos from each student sharing the best part of the school year. Co-create Criteria for Success for this show and tell; let them choose the product in which they share. (Electronic Product Ideas: kathyschrock.com)
- Drive-by or walk around the school with signs, music from phone, or other artifacts about the best components of “their” school.
- Create a Classroom/School Historical Journal. Each student contributes a piece of their Self-Expressive Writing (they choose). Publish this journal on your district website, your classroom website, or in a blog (with everyone’s permission).
- Create a Teacher Collage Video. Teachers create individual videos wishing their students a happy end to the school year and then someone assembles them into one master video to share out with students, even on social media.
When we take the time to expressively write about how we are feeling about experiences (big or small, good or bad) we force our brains to focus and organize the experiences which leads to so many benefits! For reflection time to have a greater impact, we must always look through this lens: Based on what I learned from these experiences, what can I do differently in the future? Don’t forget to look back at your journal entries. When we review what we have written in the past, we can be reminded of how resilient we were during some challenging times and which tools helped us the most. Writing is one of the strongest memory tools out there. It can help you persist through the tough times that change can bring. Reflecting through writing has given me hope that there is much I can do to manage my stress. This is just one powerful tool to help me, you and our students cope with stress and trauma. This tool is imperative this year… give the gift of reflection through writing to yourself and your students.
Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Bianchi, E. C. (2013). The Bright Side of Bad Times: The Affective Advantages of Entering the Workforce in a Recession. Administrative Science Quarterly, 58(4), 587-623. doi:10.1177/0001839213509590
Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting Reflection in Learning: A Model. Reflection: Turning Reflection into Learning. London: Routledge.
Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(2), 150-163. doi:10.1016/s0092-6566(03)00058-8
Friedman, H. S., & Silver, R. C. (2007). Expressive Writing, Emotional Upheavals, and Health. In Foundations of health psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Glaze, J. E. (2001). Reflection as a transforming process: Student advanced nurse practitioners’ experiences of developing reflective skills as part of an MSc programme. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 34(5), 639-647. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01793.x
Niles, A. N., Haltom, K. E., Mulvenna, C. M., Lieberman, M. D., & Stanton, A. L. (2013). Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: The moderating role of emotional expressivity. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 27(1), 1-17. doi:10.1080/10615806.2013.802308
Pennebaker, J. W. (2013). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Wheat Ridge, CO: Center for Journal Therapy.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.95.3.274
Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients With Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis. Jama, 281(14), 1304. doi:10.1001/jama.281.14.1304
Stefano, G. D., Gino, F., Pisano, G. P., & Staats, B. R. (2014). Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2414478