For more than 18 months, education in Bangladesh, like in many other parts of the world, took on a new look. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were forced to adapt to a “new reality” for their learning experiences. Some became online learners with classes fully delivered online while others missed out on more than a year of formal education due to no access to online learning options, with others somewhere in between. The government’s announcement to reopen schools last month was met with a collective sigh of relief among many stakeholders but also concern of how the return to school experience would look like, feel like and sound like. Included in these concerns but not often addressed enough is the mental health and well-being of our students. As children make the transition back to school, it is imperative that all stakeholders be mindful of the possible issues surrounding the reopening of schools and be available to support children during this time.
On the part of the students, the return to school comes with a myriad of sometimes conflicting emotions - joy, excitement, worry, anxiety and fear. Students are happy to see their friends and teachers after a very long time but also concerned about “will I fit in?”, “I’ve gained weight during the pandemic, will my classmates make fun of me?”, “what if I can’t remember how to do my schoolwork?” These are just a few of the many questions that are circling in children’s minds. It will be tempting for educators and parents to focus on making up for “lost” time and focus solely on academics. However, research shows that children in distress will not learn very well. Children are indeed resilient by nature and often bounce back from challenging situations; however, it is of utmost importance that schools, parents and other caregivers take a proactive role in safeguarding the mental health and well-being of our children.
1. raise awareness among teachers, school staff and parents about the potential signs of poor or negative mental health in students.
2. be intentional about teaching social skills that may have been lost during the school closure period. For example, using “magic” words, like please and thank you, including others in groups, taking turns.
3. Encourage children to label their feelings accurately with the use of tools like Feeling Charts. Create safe spaces for children to share their feelings and experiences. Listen to, and validate children’s experiences rather than minimizing them.
4. be patient and flexible. Allow time for students to re-familiarize with school routines, physical spaces and social interactions. Talk through any upcoming changes in an age appropriate manner.
6. ask check in questions that promote social and emotional awareness and promote a growth mindset - “how were you kind at school today?”, “what are you thankful for today?”, “what was most challenging for you today and what strategies did you use to cope?”, “what was the highlight of your day?”. These questions will encourage children to make connections with the adults around them, and also to self-reflect and put things into perspective - not everything is negative at the moment. We still have some control despite the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and can be intentional about experiencing a positive frame of mind.
7. give children an opportunity to live a balanced life. Give time and attention to academics but also allow them to play, develop new hobbies, do some arts and crafts and engage in physical activities.
8. adults should also prioritize their own mental health and well-being. This will allow them to be better able to support the children in their care.
The suggested tips will go a long way to promote positive mental health and well-being in our students as we all continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators and parents are encouraged to seek professional mental health services for children when needed.
The writer is a social/emotional counselor, International School Dhaka.