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Usable Knowledge

Getting Through It Together

When we can't gather in groups, how to maintain connection and provide support to classmates and colleagues
Virtual group meeting

Because the social and emotional learning supports provided by class cohorts, afterschool clubs, and circles of friends have been disrupted by physical distancing, educators, students, and families need to acknowledge and revisit these supports. What are the ways that we can continue to be there for one another?

Adam Silk, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School instructor, runs a program called RELATE that examines the importance and functioning of group supports for teachers and students in schools. “We need each other, of course, and when we’re deprived of that, it rocks us,” Silk says. “What groups allow us to do in the crisis is to connect and that’s really powerful and important and needed.”

Whether working with an advisory group, a cohort of science teachers, or a school orchestra, Silk advises group leaders consider taking the time to do the following to ensure group members feel heard and supported in this time:

  • If possible, meet more frequently but for shorter periods of time. “People are tired of feeling isolated,” Silk says. Having regular meetings breaks up the time we spend alone.
  • Talk about what’s going on in the world. Name fears and model vulnerability. In these uncertain times, Silk says that recognizing we might not know what’s coming next opens up space to talk about the future. Acknowledging fear and uncertainty lets the group move forward and plan ahead. “Anything you can name, you can talk about, and anything you can talk about you can manage better,” he says. He notes that the leader may have to take the first step and signal to the group it’s ok to talk about worries in the meeting space.
  • Establish emotional contact. While many may feel compelled to run business as usual, that may prove difficult meetings occur virtually. “What’s harder [about virtual meetings] is that it doesn’t feel quite real — like you’re watching TV. The way to break down that feeling of unreality is with more personal and emotional connection. It’s more necessary for people to be more human, less formal, less sticking to business.”
  • Reestablish boundaries and generate new agreements. Since meetings are taking place in different locations for everyone, leaders should take time to reestablish norms and boundaries—are the meetings still private? Should participants find a quiet space in their home? Can pets poke their head in? Additionally, groups may need to readjust their agreements around how work is done, the roles of the leader and the group’s members, and what the goals are. “Leaders who can trust the judgment of members, trust students, and create consensus about how they’re going to do business under these circumstances have chance to create something quite special and important,” Silk says.
  • Acknowledge loss. Many students are no longer able to undergo rites of passage like graduation or prom. That’s difficult for many — especially as these ceremonies often serve as a way of saying goodbye and acknowledging the work done and time spent together. “The best thing you can do as a leader is continually reinforce message that this is a difficult way to say goodbye, but it is still possible,” he says. “It’s important to say to each other what the experience has meant, to acknowledge grief and that it’s not ending the way you wanted it to. But there’s an unchanged reality which is that we still care about each other and we will see each other again.”

Key Takeaways

  • Leave time to provide emotional support when groups meet.
  • Acknowledge the unknown and use meeting time to think together about how to prepare for the future.
  • Revisit boundaries and agreements about how the group works together. Adjust as needed.

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