Centre Daily Times

Critical ‘check-ins’ can help combat sense of isolation

- BY CHRIS STALEY Chris Staley is a distinguis­hed professor of art at Penn State.

OFTEN DURING THESE CHECK-INS THERE IS LAUGHTER AND SOMETIMES EVEN TEARS OF EMPATHY.

School can be a lonely place. Each student floats along in a bubble, doing their own thing. The pandemic has only exasperate­d this sense of isolation.

I have been teaching art to college students for over 40 years and students seem more alone than ever. Years ago, when I entered a classroom on the first day of school, students would be chattering among themselves. Now there is often silence.

What caused this perceived increase in social isolation? Research has suggested plenty of culprits, from increasing screen time, to xenophobia, to the competitiv­e culture of meritocrac­y, a more transient society, to the decline of children playing outdoors together while growing up, to name a few.

Students long for a sense of community. Their well-being depends on it. Human beings are social animals. Once 800,000 years ago our distant relatives sat around campfires sharing stories. No doubt those stories evoked laughter, tears, a sense of awe, and most importantl­y a sense of togetherne­ss.

The simple “check-in” creates a sense of community in a classroom more effectivel­y than anything else. I simply ask students, “How are things going for you in school and life?” I always go first, and start by saying they can say anything that they are comfortabl­e sharing. I try and be candid and let them know that none of us are beyond the daily challenges of life. For example, I might share something as mundane as my wife and I have a new 6-month-old dog that when thrown a yellow tennis ball will not come back. The only thing that entices Tessa to return is another yellow tennis ball.

Often during these check-ins there is laughter and sometimes even tears of empathy. Students listen attentivel­y to what each other shares during these round robin checkins. I will never forget when a student named Taylor said, “I transferre­d here to Penn State this semester to be with my girlfriend. She recently broke up with me and I must say I don’t know anyone, and I’ve been pretty lonely.” Rarely is a college student so open and vulnerable. There was an awkward silence, then like an angel a student named Jennifer said, “Taylor I would be happy to talk with you and be your friend.” This act of kindness was a lesson for all of us.

This simple round robin check-in is a small reminder to students that they are not as alone as they may feel. The late poet Mary Oliver said, “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love and the ability to ask questions.” When students are asked how things are going, they feel valued. The check-in is like sharing thoughts and feelings around a campfire that can provide a warmth of belonging, long after the fire has gone cold.

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