Dawn Mangine

    As educators face the prospect of the 2020 school year, they may be feeling differently than in years past. COVID-19 has made the landscape for returning to campuses and classrooms an unfamiliar one. And in no way are educators alone in feeling “off” as they navigate the idea of going back to school.

    Usually the beginning of a school year brings excitement for students, teachers, and parents alike. But 2020 is different. According to neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann, it’s not just the external world that has changed as the Coronavirus pandemic continues – our brains are struggling to cope with the prolonged stress and how to proceed in planning, decision making, and concentration.

    According to Plassmann, the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning and analytical thinking, has been impacted by the ongoing, uncertain nature of COVID-19. The brain’s long-term memory systems cannot give any assistance because it doesn’t have a comparable experience to reference. Collectively, people are frazzled, exhausted, and unfocused.

    Tools to Regroup and Refocus

    In order to fight the effects of “COVID brain,” educators need to bring all their skills of planning, decision-making, and critical thinking to bear, not just for themselves, but for their students. Again, neuroscientists have suggestions for self-care methods to use to regain cognitive control.

    Mindfulness: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in everyone from healthcare workers to the general public. Physical distance has caused an increase in feelings of loneliness, abrupt changes to daily routines, and financial insecurity. Mindfulness, which simply requires a practitioner to bring full attention to one thing – such as the breath – can help reduce feelings of anxiety and helplessness. Evidence suggests that “structured mediation and mindfulness trainings have been shown to improve emotional regulation, reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and prevent substance abuse.”

    Listen to music: Playing music can boost productivity, help sustain attention and focus, and regulate emotions. An upbeat playlist can help one power through a workout, another way to boost mental and physical well-being, while background music of movie soundtracks or low-fidelity beats can help one sharpen one’s focus on the task at hand.

    Cross something of the to-do list: Pick a task that is easy to accomplish – really easy, like “Water the plants.” In a work or classroom setting, what is a basic task with a familiar flow that can fill a designated time? Completing small or familiar tasks helps the brain reset and builds a sense of momentum.

    Change the perspective: Overall, if we can look at this time as a chance to make positive changes, rather than a situation where we are under constant threat, the brain can adapt to clarity of thought and stave off negative emotions.

    Plassmann, H., Kessler, B. “Battling ‘Covid-19 Brain’”, INSEAD Knowledge. July 7, 2020. https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/battling-covid-19-brain-14626

    Parry, Kathy, “COVID Brain – It isn’t Just Your Imagination”, kathyparry.com. https://www.kathyparry.com/covid-brain-it-isnt-just-your-imagination/