Author: Jovi Nazareno, student at Harvard University Extension School.

Change is all around us. Schools, offices, businesses, events, and public spaces or transportation are closing, limiting their hours, or being cancelled. Certain places we go to on a daily basis are moving toward online structures; other places are providing just a subset of in-person services. Depending on where you live, all this change may have unfolded in a timeline of weeks. Over just weeks, and sometimes days, people around me have faced incredible challenges. Family members lost their jobs. Classmates scrambled to travel home or find a new temporary home. Colleagues reconfigured their work schedules and locations due to school and daycare closures. Friends who considered themselves “lucky” to telecommute after office closures suddenly face potential furloughs or layoffs. Other folks experienced disruptions to travel plans to see loved ones or encountered challenges to return to them. Loved ones worried about whether they or me have been or will be exposed to the virus. I’ve heard people cough or sneeze and say, “don’t worry it’s not coronavirus,” in hopes of avoiding negative reactions. Empty store shelves and limits on quantities remind me about both the seriousness of the situation and the panic to self-sustain. Amidst all this change, we go on, because we cannot halt. Mortgages or rent payments are due, food and medical care is needed, education remains important, and we contribute as we can to society.

So, while transitions to online learning and/or working occur, they do not occur in isolation. The transitions instead take place alongside uncertainties and overlapping of our life roles. Know that whatever you are feeling is okay and normal to feel, but also know that humans are social1 and we can and must support each other. All of these transitions happen with people. This means we choose how we respond to each other and how we communicate.

Raise up, not put down

What we say (and what we show in actions) has the tremendous potential to create a positive effect even when, and especially when, we find ourselves in times of crisis. We can choose to be kind and compassionate—to raise a person up instead of putting them down. And this choice can take on surprisingly simple forms.

To explain, I’ll share what made me feel down lately and how people raised me up.

Due to school campus closures, I worried how (and if) professors would keep in touch when our primary contact occurs on campus. While reading work-from-home guidance, I noticed messages that focused not on the fact that my colleagues are juggling the blurring of lines between life’s many roles but on whether efficiency could be maintained. Then while thinking about such things, I also realized that school and work were minor issues relative to the health of family and friends. Like many people around me, I could feel an anxiousness tugging at me.

That tug made what I’m about to describe even more meaningful to me. My grandmother sent me a letter in the mail using lovely new stationary, opening the door to a new way of keeping in touch with one another. Colleagues shared a note of thank you for our working together, which made challenging days at work seem much more fulfilling. Teachers shared inspirational and kind messages reminding us to move forward together. Friends reached out to say hello and check in. Loved ones ensured that I felt their care even from afar. These words and actions all gifted me with moments of positive affect that I could cherish and that could keep me tipped toward resilience despite what’s happening around me. People do this.

Kindness and compassion through one letter, thank you card, email, text, call, or video call—all of which continue to be options despite social distancing—can raise people up. This matters because the experience of positive affect matters. Research in what’s called the broaden-and-build theory2 suggests that while negative emotions serve to narrow our actions and thoughts, positive emotions allow for more possibilities. Even if an experience of positive emotion is short-lived, those moments build up to increase our personal resources by expanding what we perceive, think, do, and feel. In turn, as our resources expand, our ability to experience more of the positive expands too. Negative emotions do, of course, serve a purpose and should not be thought of as unneeded or unreal, but the point is to not let it extend longer than it is helpful.3 Further, positive emotions stretch beyond the over-simplistic notion of “happy-ology”; think back to my personal stories earlier and the moments of gratitude, surprise, inspiration, and love. How can you cultivate such experiences for yourself and those around you?

Remember: People first

The real constraint of time can make the transition to a virtual environment feel rather forced, shifting focus to how to make this work temporarily instead of how to flourish in this new environment. Given how quickly change is happening around us, it can be too easy to overlook relationships and communication. As we shift to sheltering and social distancing we can at the same time support each other.

Both positive emotion and relationships are critical aspects of well-being in the PERMA theory (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment).4 For children, a positive relationship with an adult is one key factor in resilience,5 and across the ages, it is widely accepted that we humans are indeed social beings. The impact of social connection is also reflected in a classroom, where the teacher-student relationship has a particularly large effect size on learning outcomes.6 A separate blog by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa highlights the key considerations for moving online, which include a focus on support systems as well as communication, among other factors.7

From my experience with navigating the world of remote work and learning, I can say with certainty that communicating with people is the priority. Without communication, even when it is hard, I’ve witnessed confusion, frustration, misunderstandings, and isolation. When people do not make the effort to answer a call, respond to a message, or share changes that they know about, let’s be clear that a message is still sent. That message for a while may be “I’m busy” but eventually it could become, “I don’t care enough about you.” Whether or not such a message is true from the sender’s point-of-view does not matter so much. What matters is the perceived care, especially in a learning environment.8,9

Make simple yet powerful gestures

If you are unsure how or where to start, start here:

  • Build community by using interactive options to bring people together.10 Interactive technology allows us to communicate beyond static options (e.g., emails, phones, repositories of information). For example:
    • Use video conferencing to host virtual “open office hours” where a day/time is set, and anyone can “drop in”.
    • Use video conferencing for virtual working/studying sessions, where you can be around people via video as you work on individual projects.
    • Create discussion boards / group chats.
    • Start scheduled virtual meetings 10-15 min. ahead of time and stay 10-15 min. afterwards to foster informal conversations.
  • Communicate across modalities (e.g., in writing, in pre-recorded videos, by sharing external video content, using video conferencing software).
  • Rather than presume to know what a person is feeling, ask. Instead of worrying about whether you are saying the right thing, have a conversation. These interactions are important because they can cultivate empathy and in turn increase the likelihood of future helping behavior.11
  • Recognize that what happens to us is not always going to feel good. Much as we can talk about the importance of positive emotions in our lives (e.g., joy, calmness, triumph), we cannot completely purge of the negative ones (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness). Because emotions are part of learning,12 we know that what a person feels when working on a task or a skill impacts their performance. Understanding how emotions affect our cognitive abilities and physiological states enables us to value each person’s reaction.
  • Be more patient and understanding than usual due to the circumstances.
  • Avoid surprising people with unexpected deadlines or last-minute tasks that are not urgent, as we already have more than enough adapting to do in our daily routines already.
  • Even if you don’t have a “completed” plan of action for all the change happening, share a message that says what you know and when you’ll communicate again.
  • Check out these practices by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley for cultivating connections.13

Bottom line: We’re experiencing all these changes with people. Let’s choose to be the person who raises people up in times of need and take actions to put people first.

1 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Gotlieb, R. (2017). Embodied brains, social minds, cultural meaning: Integrating neuroscientific and educational research on social-affective development. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1_suppl), 344S-367S. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216669780

2 Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positive emotions. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology [kindle version] (2nd ed., pp. 13–24). New York: Oxford University Press.

3 Fredrickson, B. L. (2008). Promoting positive affect. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds.), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 449–468). New York: Guilford Press.

4 The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. (2020). PERMA theory of well-being and PERMATM workshops. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from Penn Arts and Sciences Positive Psychology Center website: https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops

5 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

6 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement. New York: Routledge.

7 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2020, March 13). Taking your course online? Think before you leap. Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform. https://thelearningsciences.com/taking-your-course-online-think-before-you-leap/?lang=en

8 Liu, P. P., Savitz-Romer, M., Perella, J., Hill, N. E., & Liang, B. (2018). Student representations of dyadic and global teacher-student relationships: Perceived caring, negativity, affinity, and differences across gender and race/ethnicity. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 54, 281–296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2018.07.005

9 Velasquez, A., West, R., Graham, C., & Osguthorpe, R. (2013). Developing caring relationships in schools: A review of the research on caring and nurturing pedagogies. Review of Education, 1(2), 162–190. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3014

10 Reese, S. A. (2015). Online learning environments in higher education: Connectivism vs. Dissociation. Education and Information Technologies, 20(3), 579–588. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-013-9303-7

11 Batson, D. C., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D. A. (2009). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology [kindle version] (2nd ed., pp. 417–426). New York: Oxford University Press.

12 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

13 Go to: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/#filters=connection