Warning signs of a child in need will come from a distance during virtual learning, but educators can still help a child in an at-risk home

5 ways to identify a child in need during virtual learning


Warning signs of a child in need will come from a distance during virtual learning, but educators can still help a child in an at-risk home

Teachers have many jobs these days—educator, IT professional, custodian, and mentor, just to name a few. But arguably one of the biggest jobs for teachers in today’s distance learning environment is being able to provide a sufficient level of support for students’ social, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Children have been isolated from their peers and teachers, and many are in homes where there is trauma from COVID-19 or the economic crisis. Strong, supportive relationships not only help keep students engaged, but also provide a foundation for building a classroom community where all children, including a child in need of help, feel safe and secure.

Safety and security are especially important for children who may be experiencing the effects of violence, abuse, or addiction in the home. While child abuse reports are down nationally by 40 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts fear that it has actually risen behind closed doors.

Teachers and coaches have traditionally been on the frontline of spotting signs of abuse and neglect—the move to distance learning has undoubtedly contributed to the low numbers of reported cases.

Related content: How COVID put a spotlight on equity

Without consistent in-person contact with students, the typical signs of a child in need of help can be much harder to spot, even when webcams are mandatory. Virtual meeting platforms like Zoom are ill-suited for providing teachers with cues they have come to rely on to indicate a child in need: lack of hygiene, atypical or disruptive behavior, or physical marks on the body, for example.

Students struggle, too. It can be difficult for them to reach out discreetly to a teacher when they are stuck in a Zoom or Meet room with 30 other students. Their classmates may not speak up when they notice something going on with a peer if the teacher has not established clear and trusted online protocols for checking in around a friend. With many districts restricting the use of breakout rooms or student chat, many vulnerable students lack access to the very tools that might help them process their trauma or alert others to their needs.

The nonprofit organization I co-founded, Connected Camps, has grappled with spotting warning signs at a distance for years. Our college-age counselors teach real-time programs online and have a virtual view into the home lives of our students. Like all teachers and coaches, our counselors are mandatory reporters and have been trained on what to do when they witness a child in crisis.

While it doesn’t happen very often, our counselors have seen children getting hit or emotionally abused on camera; they have experienced children mentioning thoughts of suicide during a session or behaving in ways that indicated the child was struggling emotionally or mentally. We have protocols in place each time something happens to provide support for the child and to alert their families when it is appropriate to do so.

While our training and protocols help us manage difficult conversations, we are continually learning about ways to help us identify a child in need as a virtual educator. Here are five useful strategies:

1. Do daily check-ins: Check-in regularly with your students on their mood and well-being. Take note of feelings expressed by individual students and follow-up personally with those expressing certain emotions (i.e., distant, depressed, lost, hurt, overwhelmed, angry, etc.). Let them know you are open and available, and they can contact you. Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona had an Every Student, Every Day campaign last spring. An adult with the school district, whether a principal, teacher, or support staff, was in touch with every child every day to check up on them.

2. Provide clear channels to reach out: Give your students more than one method for reaching out to you privately. This can be done by email, phone, or even through an online tool–whatever method you think is best. Remind students about it often and make sure information on why and how to reach out is visible and easy to access.

3. Train your students to look for warning signs in themselves and others: Show that their privacy and confidentiality will be respected, while also giving them the confidence to reach out about a classmate they may have concerns about. But be clear on the protocols if it’s something you have to report. Emphasize their roles as helpers and listeners in your learning community.

4. Use activities to surface feelings: Design learning activities or parts of each classroom day that provide opportunities for students to engage in work around emotional wellbeing. Notice what they say and how they say it and check-in around any work that raises red flags for you. Wide Open Schools and Edutopia both have excellent resources to draw on.

5. If you can’t rely on a webcam, rely on your instincts: Not every child will have access to a webcam or may turn it off. While it might mean nothing, turning off or refusing to use a webcam can be a sign of trouble. Find a way to reach out privately to the student, perhaps by phone or email, if you fear that something is amiss.

And remember: As educators, you already have the tools and classroom training to spot students that may be in trouble. Teaching online just means adapting that training to a new context—one that isn’t naturally designed for care and support. Reminding yourself of this can give you the permission you need to fill in the gaps with your expertise. Your students—and all of us parents and community members—will thank you for it.

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