Coping with the Loss of School Traditions

As we enter Holiday Season, we are reminded again that this school year is so very different than any we have ever experienced. There will be no Snowball Dance, no Thanksgiving lunch with grandparents, no year-end Holiday Party with snacks and parent volunteers milling about. Semester exams look different, and every week there are adjustments to schools’ plans for virtual, in-person, and hybrid delivery. The change is constant.

Every teacher and parent knows the academic calendar is marked by firsts and lasts — rituals that mark the passing of time and create structure to the year: First Day of School. Homecoming. Winter Concert. Prom and Graduation. When the pandemic began last March, many End of Year traditions were lost for the class of 2020. And with its continuation this fall, many of the firsts of the school year were lost as well.

This year, nothing looks like it has in the past, and that creates instability and pervasive feelings of unease. Time either feels like it has gone too fast or slowed way down; those markers of time are missing and throwing off our inner time clock and homeostasis.

A recent Mayo clinic article stated “the pandemic has had a major psychological impact, causing people to lose a sense of safety, predictability, control, freedom and security.” Students and teachers may experience these missed traditions as a painful loss, contributing to feelings of a depressed mood, lack of motivation, irritability and may increase general anxiety in an already heightened period.

Traditions create a sense of stability, of known expectations, expected experiences that are counted on and predictable. Without these, there is uncertainty and destabilization.

How can we change this? In SaintA’s work with schools around the state as a partner and provider of school based mental health services, we recommend the following.

Strategies for Coping with Change

1) Start by Acknowledging the Loss. There have been many losses and changes, some small and some significant. Acknowledging these losses is key — for yourself, the student, and parent. Each person will have their own perception of which items were small and which were significant, but the impact is relevant.

A second-grade teacher told me about the overwhelming grief she felt going into her classroom to clean it out before school was to start virtually this year. She needed to process this for weeks as a giant hole in her teacher life – one she previously dreaded but missed so much this year. For students, it might be acknowledging there is no Holiday Pops concert for their Senior year, something they will not have a chance to do ever again. This is a profound loss to a student in this moment.

2) Create Connection and Predictability. Once you’ve acknowledged the missed traditions and given space for the loss, communicate the plan on what can happen to allow for predictability. Staying connected and maintaining relationships is key to mitigating feelings of loss and instability. While we continue to practice social distancing, we must reinforce the need for engagement.

Our motto at SaintA throughout the pandemic has been “Better Together.” Even though we are working remotely, we all are engaged in that work together. Here are some ways schools can engage educators and learners to maintain relationships:
  • Dig into the possibilities of a virtual classroom. Some teachers are sending notes and letters home to kids, having virtual music breaks, virtual plays and at home costume creation in attempt to create that caring connection. Others are hosting morning coffee time or after-hour grading hangouts. Find what works for you.
  • Create structure and daily routine. Structure fosters a sense of stability and predictability that is calming and reassuring. Draft out the next week’s activities and what students can expect in small doses. Start working on helping them (and yourself) plan for alternative traditions, like the ones mentioned above!
  • Focus on what we can control. Focus on small things that are within your control. Create areas where there is an option so the student can make the choice and feel a sense of control over what is happening in their environment or academic world. It might be small “traditions” we create as closing rituals for daily virtual gatherings.
3) Find the Positive Effects of Change. Loss of tradition can bring grief, but can also bring to light the things that are most important to us. We are now at a time where light may be beginning to shine through, and that is the hope we can focus on.

We know that in the future, things will improve. We will be able to slowly, carefully, and mindfully return to some of those traditions missed this year and last, while holding on to the good things we’ve found in the meantime.

Have thoughts of your own? We’d love to hear from you! Share what strategies your school community is using to keep traditions alive. EMAIL ME with your best tips to share!

This article was originally posted in SaintA’s Compassionate Schools Newsletter. Sign up to receive the next issue directly in your inbox!


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