The Pitfalls of a “Grab the Bull by the Horns” Pandemic Response

It’s great to be back after taking some time off. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken a full week off from work, and at the same time, I can’t remember the last time I felt such an overpowering need to take a break from work.

But, then again, it’s no surprise. Living through a pandemic these past seven months has been crazy challenging, right?

I feel like I’ve had two distinct pandemic experiences. The first four months marked my “Grab the Bull by the Horns” pandemic response. I was positive! I was energized! I was hopeful and optimistic! I accomplished more around my house during the early months of the pandemic than I have in a long time. I was Ms. Energizer Bunny!

I also began a brand-new workout practice at home and was cooking and eating healthier than I had for a long time. I was on fire with goals and productivity and can-do-it-ness. I was grateful for my health and the health of my loved ones; grateful that I had a job and one that I passionately love; grateful for the birds outside my office window and blooming flowers that brought color during a dismal time.

Then came part two of my pandemic experience, from mid-July to the present, which I call my Ennui pandemic response. This phase has included increases in forgetfulness, disorganization, irritation and fatigue. My daily workout practice dwindled to once a week and my healthy cooking was degraded to take out dining.

Turns out, this Ennui pandemic response is a real thing. I recently read an article that said many of us are experiencing what experts call “surge capacity depletion.” According to journalist, Tara Haelle, surge capacity is “a collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” But as Haelle observes, our surge capacity isn’t endless; it has to be renewed. She asks, “What happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

Research shows that restless sleep patterns, feeling distracted, having difficulty concentrating or being easily irritated are signs your surge capacity is depleted and you need a break.

So, I took a break.

Many of us need a break, but the coronavirus doesn’t. And, that’s the problem. The pandemic is still with us and the uncertainty of when it will be over continues. Our stress is compounded because we know it’s real and dangerous and threatening, but at the same time, it feels vague and somewhat nebulous. Yet, we are fully aware of its presence in our lives.

So much about our lives has been altered by the virus – how we work, learn, teach, socialize, shop and so much more. The reality is that these lifestyle changes are very real and will have a lasting impact.

The problem is…there isn’t a good answer or a good solution right now to the current situation. Haelle suggests strategies like lowering our expectations for ourselves and accepting what she calls “ambiguous loss” – loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution. She also suggests engaging in activities – both new and old – that we find life-giving and focusing on slowly building our resilience bank accounts back up.

If I’m going to survive this season of pandemic – being the Type A overachiever that I am – then I’m going to have cut myself some slack without guilt. In normal times, I get a lot done and I have a pretty good amount of energy, enthusiasm and optimism. But, as we’ve all said again and again these last few months, these are not normal times.

I’m also rebuilding my resilience bank by rededicating myself to simple, daily practices that I know are good for me like getting enough sleep, exercising, drinking more water, limiting my work hours each day and spending time with friends and family. I may not succeed at maintaining this precarious balance, but being determined as I am, I will surely give it my best effort. And, isn’t that the best any of us can do right now?

I am sharing my pandemic experience with you because I know I’m not alone in this. Many of us are simply burned out. We, especially the “Grab the Bull by the Horns” kind of people, surged with the best of them and then we utterly depleted ourselves. Maybe you are one of them. So, if you are in a state of ennui like me, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Give yourself some slack. Grant yourself patience and grace. Do what is life-giving, energizing and resilience-building for you. Do the little things each day that will maintain or build your surge capacity.

When you take care of yourself, you are a better person for others – your family, your co-workers, your friends and your students. If you find yourself at the bottom of the well and depleted, try not to respond with a “Grab the Bull by the Horns” response and just push through it. Rather, “grab the hand” of someone you trust and who can help you wrangle your way up again. You deserve it and so do those who love and need you.

P.S. If you would like to read more about surge capacity depletion and ways you can build your capacity reservoir, read the full article by Tara Haelle.

Turning “Nobody” Into “Somebody”

Early one morning in 2018, a “twitter challenge” caught my eye. It was from a principal in Missouri. This challenge struck a chord with me. It seemed like a valuable activity. When you are aware of a good idea, I’ve learned that it’s good to go ahead and implement it if you are able. Don’t wait! Don’t procrastinate! So after I finished the morning announcements that day, I asked all our students to get out a sheet of paper and write down the name of one adult they trusted – someone that they could talk to if they needed. I told them that if they could not think of one, they could write “nobody.” I collected all the papers and we began putting our data into a spreadsheet.

Out of about 500 students, we had 38 who wrote “nobody.” That’s 38 too many! We want every student to feel connected in our school, as I know you do in your school. We want every child to have an adult they feel comfortable talking to.

I made a slide show of the pictures of our students that wrote “nobody.” We watched this slideshow at our faculty meeting the next week. There were no names attached to any of the pictures and we did not discuss who taught these students. We viewed these pictures in complete silence. It was a sobering moment – one that I will not soon forget. When it was over, I told our teachers, “It is my hope that if we do this activity again in a few months we won’t have any students who write “nobody.”

That evening, the activity inspired me to tweet about it. There were a number of people on Twitter who asked me what I was going to do with the data we generated. One person responded, “What are your next steps?” That left me feeling a bit convicted. Showing the pictures at the faculty meeting was a good activity, but it was not enough. The fact is, some of our kids don’t feel sufficiently connected and we don’t want to just hope they get connected. We don’t want to leave it to chance. So, yesterday, I gave the list of these students to our counselor and I emailed our teachers asking them to connect with her to “adopt” a student on the list. This isn’t a formal process, but it reflects our faculty’s commitment to ensuring that every student in our school has an adult advocate. We don’t want any student falling through the cracks. That is our goal. Every kid is important. Every kid matters. And they need to feel it.

This story was shared by Danny Steele, a principal at a high school in Alabama, in his blog that I first read in 2018 and recently read again. It was just what I need to hear and be reminded of, especially right now.

Research has always said that there is nothing more important in a child’s life than having a positive and stable relationship with a caring adult. The influence just one positive adult can have on a child can be life changing. It offers the child a sense of security and inclusion, enhances their resilience and coping skills, protects them from risky behaviors, contributes to higher achievement and so much more.

The bottom line is… kids are far better off short-term and long-term when they have an adult they trust, respect and care about and believe they can talk to about whatever is on their heart and on their mind. This is true in life outside of a pandemic, but even more so during a pandemic.

Kids of all ages are currently grappling with a wide range of emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety and sadness – just to name a few. The ways in which they process these emotions and the experiences they have had these past six months will be greatly influenced by whether they have at least one “secure base” to turn to.

So, I have to ask…

Are you that one “secure base” for your kids?

Do you have a positive, caring, stable relationship with ALL of your kids?

If you surveyed the kids you work with, would some of them say they have “nobody” to talk to?

No matter how you answered these questions, one thing is for certain…we can’t leave relationship building with kids to chance. As Danny stated in his blog, “We don’t want to just hope they get connected.” If we do, we risk some kids having “nobody” to connect with. We need to be intentional about connecting every child with an adult and have a plan on how we are going to make it happen.

If you need some help creating your plan, here are a few proven ideas and resources to get you started:

  1. Make relationship-building a priority in your daily virtual or in-person gatherings with kids, especially throughout the first two weeks of school. Implement ongoing structures and practices, such as welcoming the kids at the door, holding daily check-ins or offering advisory time with a counselor, teacher or other staff person. These kinds of rituals can be informal, regularly scheduled or a combination of both.
  2. Gather information weekly or even daily about how your kids are feeling or the experiences they are currently facing. Use this online survey as it is, or add or eliminate questions, to check in with your students.
  3. Give just 5 minutes of your time to chat one-on-one with kids. It can make a big difference. Click here for a sample agenda and questions you can ask in even a brief encounter with a child.
  4. Identify resources and practices that build a sense of community and encourage relationship-building – like writing postcards, doing interest surveys, having group chats and encouraging partner or team projects – and create a plan on how you will integrate them into your work. Use this checklist to identify other simple relationship-building strategies you can use in your interactions with kids.
  5. Replace punitive discipline with practices that focus on healing and inclusion and give students a voice, such as restorative practices, peace rooms and de-escalation strategies. This comprehensive guide focuses on how you can use Circles as a proactive measure to build trust and community and includes sample activities and lesson plans you can use with your kids.
  6. Identify kids who may have fallen through the cracks and who have “nobody” to talk to. Generate a list of all the kids you work with. Place a yellow dot next to the kids with whom you have a positive, trusting relationship with already. Place a red dot next to a child you don’t have a relationship with. Make a plan on how to reach out to your “red dot” kids. This relationship mapping strategy can also be done organizationally or school-wide. Click here to learn how you can do relationship mapping with staff in-person or virtually.

As we are all in the midst of a global pandemic and faced with the challenges of how to effectively do our work with kids, we must all center and remain focused on the things that matter most. At the most basic level, it is our human nature to want to feel loved, be valued and be connected with others. If you tune in to meeting these basic needs of all your kids, you will be doing the most important work you can do with them right now.

You can’t afford to let even one kid fall through the cracks believing they have “nobody” to talk to. One kid who believes this is one too many. Danny Steele sums it up well, “Every kid is important. Every kid matters. And they need to feel it…It is my hope that in a few months we won’t have any students who write ‘nobody.’”

Now, go forth and turn the “nobody” into “somebody” for your kids and be ready for that “somebody” to be YOU!

P.S. Last month I was scheduled to do a live online masterclass, “How to Have a Positive Influence on Your Kids Years Later,” when a last-minute emergency forced me to cancel it. Many of you were registered for the class. With your blessing, you gave me permission to record it later and then share it with you. (Thank you for your grace and understanding!). I want to share the recording of this masterclass with all of you today as it offers more insight and tips on how you can be that ONE adult who has a positive influence on kids’ lives. I hope you invest the time to watch it. It could make a difference in the life of just one kid.

“How to Have a Positive Influence on Your Kids Years Later” Masterclass Recording

How to Overcome the Balancing Act Between the Negative and the Positive

Picture this scenario… Kathleen, a third grader, is working hard on her math assignment and asks for your help. You review her work and your eyes are drawn to one of the 20 multiplication problems: 5 × 6 = 35. You note her mistake and continue scanning for other errors. You note two more incorrect answers before giving the assignment back to her. You ask her to correct the three wrong answers.

Now, hang on to this picture for a bit…

In last week’s blog I wrote about the importance of establishing standards of behavior with students in the first days of the new school year. The topic prompted a good number of emails to me.

The most asked question by readers was, “What are consequences I can use online when students aren’t living up to the standards of behavior?”

I understand why this question would quickly come to mind when you think about managing students’ behavior, especially if virtual learning is unchartered territory for you. Typically, we don’t worry about the students who will live up to the standards. They aren’t our problem. We worry more about the students who won’t live up to them. They are the ones who create challenges, chaos, stress and frustration for us.

You do need to be prepared to address problem behavior when it happens – even online. You can’t avoid it and ignoring the behavior won’t help.

I would encourage you to think about what the normal consequences would be to certain negative behavior if you were meeting in-person. Common consequences are verbal warnings, re-direction, “timeout”, giving an apology, making a phone call to a parent, one-on-one meeting with teacher, counselor or administrator or removal from the group. Think about how you can adapt these consequences to work in a virtual world. Many of them can work with thought, creativity and integrating restorative justice methods into your approach. For recommendations on how to use restorative practices when dealing with problem behavior online, download this resource, Responsive Restorative Practices & Remote Learning.

I hope this answers the question for those of you who inquired.


When thinking about using standards of behavior effectively with students, you need to also ask yourself this question, “What can I do to help my students live up to the standards of behavior online?”

If you want to have more positive than negative behavior from your students, you need to focus more on what they are doing right or is expected of them, than focusing on the negative or what they are doing wrong. Unfortunately, research has shown that teachers often tend to punish students for problem behavior more than they praise them for appropriate behavior. This lopsided approach can have a negative effect by fostering even more problem behaviors. More times than not, the behavior you pay more attention to influences the behavior you get more of.

So, pay more attention to the positive. It will be there. Remembering to do this might be difficult, but it’s so important. It starts with you recognizing positive behaviors when they are happening and then praising and reinforcing them.

Studies show that praise and reinforcement is a powerful and effective behavior management tool (even more than giving material rewards) and one you can use virtually with students. We all value being praised and recognized when we are doing good. It inspires us to work harder and do better. It nurtures our self-esteem and confidence. And, for students, it can boost their learning and increase their academic success.

Try to follow these three steps when using praise and reinforcement with your students:

  • Show your approval using words and actions to express your satisfaction.
  • Make sure the student understands exactly what he or she did to deserve your praise by specifically describing the positive behavior.
  • Give a reason as to why their positive behavior is important. Tell them what the outcome of their behavior is or will be.

Offering praise and reinforcement in this way lets students know what behavior is expected of them, that it’s important and it’s valued by you. It will increase the likelihood of them repeating the behavior again. It also sends a message to other students who want your attention and affirmation. They will learn what behaviors to imitate to get the same reinforcement and recognition from you.

In the same way, positive reinforcement can decrease problem behaviors. When a student is not living up to a standard or exhibiting negative behaviors, use this opportunity as a teachable moment for them and all the other students. Let the student know what they are doing that is inappropriate, but more importantly, what behavior is more appropriate from them instead. When you redirect a student from an inappropriate to an appropriate behavior like this the other students also learn what is unacceptable behavior.

Trust yourself and believe that you can minimize problem behaviors and increase positive behaviors with your students online using standards of behavior. It just requires you to be attentive, look for more positive behaviors than negative and praise and reinforce them when they happen.

Now, let’s go back to that picture of you and Kathleen that I asked you to hold on to…

When you reviewed her assignment looking for only the wrong answers and your feedback to her was only on what she had wrong, you missed an important opportunity with her. You missed the chance to offer Kathleen praise for the 17 answers she had correct.

Know that it’s never too late to take go back and praise and affirm a student for doing something right, including Kathleen.

P.S. Are you a parent who is struggling with your child’s behavior right now? Please know that many of the same tips in this post can work with your child at home. Just remember this…catch your child being good more than they are being bad. When you do this enough times over consistently you might be surprised at the outcome you get.