As Victorian kids resume their school attendance in term 4, some of them will bounce back into school and school routines, while others will continue to feel the emotional effects of COVID-19 lockdowns for much longer.
Monash Educational and Developmental Psychologist Emily Berger offers advice for teachers.
As Victorian students return to face-to-face learning, experts have called for schools to focus on social and emotional well-being. A number of recent studies have found that students who have experienced lockdown from COVID-19 experience fear and anxiety, anger and sadness, reduced quality of sleep, restlessness and problems concentrating, and hyperactivity and irritability.
However, my research has shown teachers feel ill-equipped, unsupported and lack confidence when it comes to managing student wellbeing and mental health.
Based on emerging evidence on the effects of COVID-19, here are six recommendations for teachers to support their students navigate school after lockdown.
1. Be aware of the potential mental health impacts of COVID-19 on students
Children’s mental health might change, become worse or improve based on their changing circumstances. However, teachers should also be confident that many students will be resilient to the effects of pandemics. It’s important that teachers continue to monitor and check in with kids about their COVID-19 thoughts and feelings.
2. Prompt students to talk about their experiences of COVID-19 and the lockdowns
It’s important to remember that many children will be unaffected by COVID-19, but some will have inaccurate and anxiety provoking thoughts about the pandemic. Asking children to draw a picture or tell a story about their experiences can be helpful to identify student’s perceptions of COVID-19 and those in need of psychological support. Students can also be asked what they think about school changes to hygiene practices, wearing a mask and other changes.
3. Get students to reflect on what they’ve learnt about themselves and their strengths during COVID-19 and the lockdowns
Posttraumatic growth theory shows that children and adolescents have a great detail of resilience and can learn from adversity. They can learn about their strengths, abilities and how to manage difficult events.
4. Look out for students who are at risk from the effects of COVID-19
This might include students with a parent with a mental illness, students with parents who are not coping with the effects of COVID-19, children exposed to family violence, students who have their own history of mental illness or adversity, and students from families who have lost employment during COVID-19. In relation to the SARS and MERS outbreaks, young people exposed to excessive media reports and with anxious thoughts about these pandemics were most at risk.
5. Show confidence to students that returning to school is the right decision
Being away from school for such a long time may contribute to student’s anxiety about returning to school, particularly for kids who experienced separation or other anxiety issues prior to the pandemic. For some children, it will be about starting from square one and allowing for modified school attendance plans and learning accommodations. It is also possible that some children will need to relearn social skills and ways to control their emotions at school. But if some students are not able to return to school full-time, focus on their achievements.
6. Re-establish routines
Get school materials ready and speak to students about how exciting it is to be returning to school. Model your excitement and hopefulness to students.
Ultimately, while we cannot know the true extent and ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 lockdowns on young Victorians, teachers may be able to use these steps to notice and refer students needing mental health support.
For all children, these strategies will increase students’ sense that their experiences are understood, will grow their support networks, and will increase their sense of agency that they can cope with the ongoing circumstances surrounding COVID-19.
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