COVID’s Strange Gift

COVID’s Strange Gift

By: JC Pohl

The pandemic was hard on all of us, and two of the groups which suffered most horribly were students and staff. As activities and in-person classes were cancelled, we saw students struggling to find the motivation to show up. This caused failing grades to escalate to record highs, and as this school year matures, we see campus behavior issues shooting through the roof.


Witnessing these negative outcomes might cause us to shake our heads with sadness and disbelief. How could things collapse into such misery so quickly? How can we possibly meet this challenge? 


But if you’re reading this, then I know you’ve already made the choice to rise to meet this obstacle. To the true school culture warriors reading this article, we choose to feel invigorated and inspired because we know exactly what to do!


COVID’s strange gift has been undeniable proof that we are better together.


Students need to be engaged on campus. It is what fuels their connection to school and builds their relationships across campus. Social-emotional learning (SEL) efforts on campus have never been more important. When COVID took away student activities, when school culture was relegated to a virtual event on Zoom, or when teachers weren’t able to build authentic in-person relationships, a record number of students failed. Some didn’t even show up to school.


It should be clear to all of us: If we want our students to reengage and succeed in school, we need to implement SEL-focused activities, student-centered learning, and better personal relationships on campus. Through these efforts, we can begin to revive school culture.


SEL Focused Activities

For years, student leadership groups such as student councils have driven student activities. They traditionally do a great job on campus to plan dances and social events or other spirit-related content like posters and pep rallies. These events are important, but what are they doing to address the social-emotional needs of our students?


We have found the best way to empower students and build a deeper offering of student activities is to hold annual or bi-annual leadership summits. These events can be hosted by outside organizations like TEEN TRUTH or Generation Leadership or produced by talented teachers on campus. The goal of any successful leadership summit should be to invite a diverse group of student leaders. You should include not just student council or NHS students but also leaders from other clubs, teams, or groups on campus. Make sure to invite different social leaders on campus who may not be leading through those traditional leadership roles.


By bringing this group of students together, we can ask them to define the top social and emotional issues, and, more importantly, challenge them to come up with solutions. This helps to create a broad range of activities that address critical needs on campus.  Some of my favorite solutions include:

  • Stress-Free Day - A day with no backpacks or homework, and instead games/relationship building activities in each class.
  • Free Time Friday - Bring back a recess period for students, no matter how old they are.
  • Family Movie Night - A great way to keep families engaged and together on campus.
  • Kindness Week or Week of Respect - Offer fun theme days to help students and teachers connect in positive ways.
  • No Homework Weekends - Let students recharge and recommit to the upcoming week.


For a good instructional video on how to do this at your school, visit For more ideas, download the Building School Culture From the Inside Out book for free at


Student-Centered Content

Teachers work extremely hard to create great content for their students. That content can make a difference in a student’s ability to succeed or fail. Unfortunately, COVID handcuffed their ability to bring certain elements of their lessons to life. A renewed focus on student-centered learning, which has been demonstrated to improve student engagement, might help. The best way to cultivate student-centered learning is to build peer-to-peer programs. Programs such as the RISING UP: Coaching Program or Hope Squad put students in the direct position to not only lead but also TEACH each other. In this way, lessons spread through the student body quickly, and are more readily integrated by students.


Those who have studied child development will recognize peer-to-peer programs offering valuable contributions to self-efficacy (which is the individual’s belief in their own ability to overcome challenges). This trait can improve student resilience to social-emotional issues. Let’s encourage students to learn in their own unique ways and bring programs to campus that build self-efficacy. Ultimately, let’s not do for students what they can do for themselves.


Teacher-Student Relationships

The effectiveness of teachers can be mapped onto a bell curve. If we take almost any school as a sample, we will find a few that already handle teacher-student relationships extremely well, a majority that make good contact consistently, and a few that are having trouble with the relational aspect of teaching.


In the context of student success and classroom engagement, how do we shift that bell curve, so every teacher can find greater success?


Whether a kindergartner, a fourth-grader, or a high school junior, every student has things going on at home, at school, and in life. I have found in my time as a marriage and family therapist that we all have relational needs. Often in relationships, these needs are or are not being met. When needs are not met, it is very hard for us to show up fully with the proper energy and engagement needed to succeed. When they are met, we feel like a superhero ready to take on the day. If a teacher can be attuned to a student's need for acceptance or approval, he or she can be the teacher that changes everything for that student’s school or classroom experience. Remember, all it takes is one adult to show a student what a healthy, positive relationship looks like.

To achieve that, we must understand relational needs. Here are the needs that I teach in our campus relationships workshops:

  • Acceptance
  • Affection
  • Appreciation
  • Approval
  • Attention
  • Comfort
  • Encouragement
  • Respect
  • Security
  • Support


Let’s figure out each students’ top needs and find a way to meet them. I guarantee that once that happens, students will take off like a rocket ship!

Additionally, let’s all remember that teachers are people too. While their students and classroom efforts have been affected by the pandemic, so have they. The list of needs above is also true for our staff members. I find that many staff members have high needs for appreciation, respect, and support. Anything school leaders can do to support the relational needs of teachers will help them to support their students.


In closing, there are many ways to reengage students, but we have found in our travels to thousands of schools, working with millions of students, that when schools value student voice and campus relationships, they build a culture of connection and positivity that is second to none. And this is what helps students engage and find success every single day.


We’re certain of this now, even more so than before. COVID has demonstrated this to us. Now we must act on what we know will help us both in and out of education.

JC Pohl is a licensed marriage and family therapist and school culture expert who has reached 1,000’s of schools and worked with millions of students. He has founded companies such as TEEN TRUTH and RISING UP, and produced award-winning content for companies such as Warner Brothers, ESPN, and Disney. To connect or learn more, visit or