This period has been challenging for all but particularly for children with special and additional needs and those experiencing poverty, stress and coping with family illness or other adverse circumstances. Our more vulnerable students may have endured an added burden of caring for younger siblings, supporting a parent with addiction, or surviving an abusive family situation which has been compounded by having to stay at home. Some students will have been further compromised by the lack of access to technology at home or, even at a more basic level, a quiet space to study at home.
The lack of real time contact with classmates, friends, and teachers, the lack of personal space at home, and familial financial loss can have even more problematic and enduring effects on children and adolescents. For example, a recent study from China showed that the mean post-traumatic stress scores were four times higher in children who had been quarantined than in those who were not quarantined.
Many children will have lost ground academically and socially, and will need to relearn the skills and habits that they had previously acquired in school, such as turn taking or listening. While others may exhibit signs of increased anxiety and stress, begin to present with school refusal, start acting out and engage in more aggressive behaviours. For others, this has been a positive experience. A time to reflect, learn and grow. They have become more self-reliant and independent learners. They have gained technological skills and worked well in an online class group, in contrast to their more vulnerable peers.
This crisis has highlighted how hard it is for children and young people to stay focused and to cope without the support and care of their teachers. It has taught us that wellbeing is not an optional extra, but a central precondition for learning, especially for our most vulnerable children.
So, before focusing on curriculum, schools need to help children process and make sense of what has occurred and how it has affected them; they need to provide a safe arena within which children can process these events at both a cognitive and emotional level, so as to mitigate the risks of long-term trauma and build their resilience and wellbeing. As a teacher, you can provide the security, the hope and optimism to create a post COVID 19 learning environment wherein students can thrive and grow.
The impact of COVID 19 will vary across individuals and communities, resilience is not found exclusively within a person, it involves wider living systems, and multiple levels of interaction between these embedded systems.
It’s recommended that teachers:
- Provide opportunities for children to reconnect socially and seek to create an atmosphere which helps learners to feel safe and secure in school, re-establish relationships with peers and reconnect with the “new” school environment.
- Present facts, provide information and teach healthy hygiene, hand washing and social distancing. Discuss progress made and information regarding the virus and the facts regarding the spread of COVID 19.
- Provide reassurance. Explain how the school is striving to keeping everyone safe with new rules and procedures. Go over changes to rules and outline the reasons for these changes. Use visual signs to support students in following these rules. Practice and rehearse these rules and praise those who are adequately following these rules.
- Facilitate classroom discussion about home-schooling and discuss the students’ experiences from during the lockdown period – be open to talking about what has happened and the impact that has had on everyone. Have conversations about both positive and negative aspects of the COVID 19. Use a variety of mediums to express these emotions and feelings such as art or crafts, writing or storytelling. Ensure that every student is given a voice in this conversation.
- Be open to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Normalise this sense of uncertainty and attempt to provide strategies to help your learners in coping with it. Acknowledge what we can and cannot control within the current climate – each person can control their own behaviour- handwashing, coughing into their sleeve etc and following the new school rules. Giving the students ownership of the factors that they can control will help to empower them.
- Focus on strengths and coping strategies. Model positive coping strategies such as self-care and relaxation and try to teach these strategies to the students. Identify healthy coping strategies such as healthy eating, getting enough sleep and engaging in sufficient levels of physical activity. Highlight examples of positive coping strategies within your school and the wider community.
- Have fun – creating positive emotion is a very powerful inoculation against stress. Find something to laugh about or even take a trip down memory lane to revisit a previous positive or happy event. Such exercises can provide an immediate mood boost for students and can offer temporary respite from persistent stress and anxiety.
- Discuss how we can all support each other within the current situation and encourage students to reach out for support, as and when it is required. Model and demonstrate the process of reaching out to the most vulnerable students in the school.
- Check in with each student individually in your class, to see how they experienced the past few months. Refer students who are struggling to outside agencies. There are some students who will need more intensive support, such as one to one counselling, and you can play a central role in ensuring they receive the help and support they need.
- Stay positive – focus on what is working well and comment on this. What can we learn from, and take with us into the future to make us better teachers and students?
- Encourage your students to engage with nature – bring them outside or bring nature inside! We know that engaging with nature is good for our mental health – you can use nature to restore and reconnect. If you cannot bring the class outside, you can bring nature inside – even the presence of plants or herbs in your classroom can help to teach students about mindfulness, while a video or film can be used to inspire awe or to demonstrate resilience and grit.
- Try to retain hope for the future, when we will return to “normal”. Use the language of the future “when the virus is gone completely or when we have a vaccine, we will be able to…” in order to instil this hopeful outlook in your learners.
The first part of this blog deals with how to look after your own wellbeing as an educator – find out more here.
If you would like to learn more about Teaching Happiness, the next term of our wellbeing courses starts on 12th of October.