Health experts have warned for months that the U.S. could see a second wave of COVID-19 infections. As daily case counts in the U.S. set records and hospitalizations soar, it appears that the surge we’ve been bracing for is already here. This raises important questions about how to minimize the risk of further spreading the virus, especially in schools.
A school’s ability to function and protect its members from COVID-19 depends largely on the willingness of each individual to engage in prosocial behavior—voluntary actions aimed at helping others. So in preparing for a resurgence of COVID-19 as the weather changes, this is an ideal time to reflect on the effects of efforts so far, and consider what else we can do to most effectively promote prosocial behavior within our school communities.
1. Recognize Differences and Foster Solidarity
Research shows that people are more likely to help others who are similar to them, especially in mass emergencies such as a global pandemic. Unfortunately, group divisions based on social class and political affiliation have been one of the greatest threats to COVID-19 solidarity efforts. In responding to the growing virus caseload this fall, it is imperative that we define COVID-19—and not each other—as our common enemy.
2. Address All Emotions
At the same time, school leaders should acknowledge the diversity of challenges facing students, educators and families. Families of color and low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Black families are forced to confront COVID-19 as they face brutal police violence, systemic racism and ongoing protests calling for change. While we may be in the same storm, we are not all weathering it in the same boat. Embracing these differences is crucial to ensuring that people feel seen and receive the support that they need, while also maintaining a united front.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge of unpleasant emotions in our students, educators, school leaders and parents. These emotions can derail prosocial behavior: sadness can lead to social withdrawal, fear can lead to competitive behaviors and frustration can lead to aggression. Additionally, high-intensity emotions such as panic can trigger quick, impulsive decisions that focus on individual survival.
To mitigate these effects, it is important to support people in regulating their emotions, taking care of themselves and responding to their grief and trauma. Schools are often a local, trusted source that can disseminate resources for those who are struggling, including suggesting safe and effective outlets for those who are feeling angry or threatened, and discouraging the over-pathologizing of the feelings that students, parents, educators and other school staff are experiencing in these uncertain times.
Another way to manage unwanted emotions is to initiate other emotions in their place. For example, sharing acts of kindness, such as teachers and staff driving to students’ houses to share messages of encouragement, can evoke moral elevation—feeling warm, inspired and uplifted.
Moral elevation boosts prosocial intentions and behavior. Indeed, a recent study showed that seeing people do kind things for others in response to COVID-19 increased their prosocial behavior, including donations to the CDC Emergency funds and learning about how to volunteer in pandemic relief programs. School leaders can share stories of helping behavior within their school, thereby capitalizing on the finding that kindness is contagious.
3. Maximize Empowerment
In general, learning about others’ experiences raises people’s awareness of others’ needs and generates a sense of empathy, thereby increasing their desire to help. However, prolonged exposure to stories about people falling ill or losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic is likely to lead to compassion fatigue—a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion and diminished ability to empathize with others. Furthermore, seeing people suffer without knowing how to assist them can lead people to feel helpless.
In communication with the school community, leaders should refrain from sharing content that is unnecessarily alarming or distressing. Instead, they should distribute information that enhances individuals’ self-efficacy—the belief that one’s actions can make a difference.
For example, leaders could share evidence of how social behaviors such as wearing masks are linked to lower transmission rates of COVID-19, reinforcing that each person’s actions matter. Leaders should also share information on specific steps that individuals can take to protect themselves and others and to support their school communities. This could help individuals to understand why and how to help.
4. Make Prosocial Responses Automatic
Although the steps described above may lead people to be more caring, empathic and kind, helping others isn’t easy. It often requires self-control, which can drain one’s energy.
This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic because behaviors that are typically routine (e.g., students eating lunch together, educators attending staff meetings) now require careful consideration. Making so many daily decisions, some with potentially life-or-death consequences, can lead people to eventually become tired of helping.
Creating structures to support and reinforce prosocial behavior can make it feel more automatic or “second nature.” As a result, these behaviors require fewer cognitive and emotional resources. School leaders can set standards so that wearing a mask, staying home when sick, and limiting group gatherings are not really decisions at all, and thus are impervious to emotions, impulses or other pressures. Through such efforts, we can make prosocial behavior the norm, thereby maximizing its effectiveness.
As the second wave of COVID-19 looms over the U.S., it is critical to do all we can to protect students, educators, school leaders and their families. Cultivating caring school communities is one step that school leaders can take to advance their school’s resiliency.