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Strategies for Starting the Year in Masks

1. A calming bag: Tangible items such as Band-Aids, mints, a personal note or encouraging sticker, extra pencils, etc. can often feel comforting when someone notices our fears or worries. Rather than share these items, at the moment it might be best if teachers create a bag for each student—if a grant or other funding is available—or send home a list of items so that parents and guardians can create the bags. Students keep them at school and use when needed. What would you put in a calming bag?

2. New routines: Teachers should be purposeful about creating classroom routines to ease any embarrassment, discomfort, worry, or anxiety students may have about wearing masks. Many of our students will not walk in already accustomed to wearing masks, so routines and predictable structures can help them feel calm and ready to learn. Routines can include things like drawing or journaling thoughts.

3. Connections with parents: A letter to parents outlining class procedures and routines will ease their anxiety and that of their kids. Teachers can also use this letter to invite parents to share the celebrations and challenges their children have experienced over the past several months.

Here are a few questions to consider asking parents:

4. Face masks and superhero powers: This is a new focused attention practice designed around masks. Ask students what superhero they are, and ask them all to create a power pose. As they hold this pose, have them breathe in three deep breaths, hold for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out a superpower they wish to send to themselves, someone they care about, or the world.

5. Morning meeting questions: These are some questions teachers can use in the first week or two as students get used to their masks and each other.

6. Theme weeks: The first weeks of school are going to feel rough for many educators and students. Sometimes redirecting our attention away from our masks can more easily occur if we focus on something else. One way to do that is to designate theme weeks with a variety of associations and connections. Ideas include things like Favorite Color Week, Animal Week, Favorite Tradition Week, Artist Week, Music Week, and My Buddy Week. You can also ask students for suggestions so that they feel empowered by the themes. Teachers and students together can also come up with activities for the themes.

7. Emotion reading practice: We are capable of reading facial expressions from the eyes up. Teachers can spend a few minutes a day practicing this. Have a student wearing a mask think of a feeling and try to express that with their face, and ask the class to guess the emotion or feeling. Another option is to put little masks on the emojis on feeling charts. Students can work to become experts at reading facial expressions of people wearing masks, which could be a fun ritual that reduces anxiety and fear.