Last week I went from the kitchen table to my desk at UCD. While the commute and having to wait in line for coffee is painful, I am delighted to be back, teaching third-level students face to face.
It’s wonderful to walk across campus and hear the loud music reverberate around the plaza and see the students sitting on the grass with their bags of promotional gifts, chatting and laughing. However, I found the lack of social distancing and the bustling crowds a bit annoying. I didn’t like working from home and was counting the days until I got back there, so I was caught off guard by my anxiety.
I’m not alone. I have heard parents say that their children have difficulty going back to school. These are not the typical toddler who is going to school for the first time, but rather older children who have never had problems attending school.
There is a term in child and youth mental health services called âschool refusalâ that I have a problem with with âoppositional defiance disorderâ. School refusal suggests a form of deliberate intention not to go to school, while in 90% of these cases, anxiety is at the root of their difficulties. It’s no mystery so many kids are struggling to return to school, especially given the news surrounding the transition.
While there is overwhelming relief in being back on campus, there is also palpable anxiety in the classroom. Many student interactions in class appear rusty and there is shyness or awkwardness in their behavior.
Last week was my first time facilitating an in-person teaching with face covers and it was interesting how they seemed to affect the interaction. When I heard a whispered response to one of my questions, I had no idea who had said it. I decided not to ask for fear of embarrassing the student.
As I renegotiate my return to work, I can understand what it has been like for the kids in school. The kids in my therapy room talked about how âdifferentâ school is now from what it was before. The two-meter distance marks on the ground, the presence of face covers, the need to use disinfection stations, and the possibility of being reprimanded if you are caught interacting with someone outside of your pod are stressful. This has been especially difficult for those with additional needs or anxious tendencies.
I understand the urge among educators to catch up on the program, but if I have learned anything from feedback from my teenage clients, the increased workload is counterproductive. I have heard many stories of excessive homework as teachers try to make up for lost time. However, it was of no use to the students I spoke to, most of whom said they felt overwhelmed and deflated. Perhaps we need to resist the urge to go âhell for leatherâ with the program, but instead focus on developing the emotional intelligence of our students.
The young adults in my class are nursing students. I know, having been a mental health nurse for over two decades, that this role requires strong emotional intelligence and resilience to deal with the inevitably tense situations that arise. This is something that I think schools, colleges, and workplaces need to be mindful of over the next few months as well.
We cannot underestimate the power of relationships in all of our environments, including school, college, work, or home. Good relationships help us motivate, anchor and support us. We need to prioritize this concept and perhaps provide even more social and emotional scaffolding for young people in this time of transition.
As adults, we have learned and honed social interaction skills, but young children have not. They also missed major opportunities for social and emotional development. For example, if a young person entered confinement at the age of 14, they may reappear at the age of 16. The steep developmental trajectory of childhood and adolescence means that the social and emotional demands of a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old are significantly different, especially when it comes to emotional and social maturity. . These young people need time to catch up with their peers and their curriculum.
There is no health without mental health. We need to safely encourage connection, teamwork, support and community. The culture of any educational environment should be conducive to learning, and according to psychologist Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the basic element of “feeling safe” in your environment is the foundation. So let’s safely nurture community, connection, and meaning.
One mistake that I think we made in high schools is to get rid of the concept of traditional âretirementâ. I’m aware that religious overtones may have made it unpopular in recent years, but the value of coming together, of sharing a space where academics are not the center of attention and just being in the company of them. from each other in an unstructured way has never been more necessary than it is now. But alas, in the true spirit of activity, we tend to have what we need in favor of pursuing what we think we want, or what others want from us.
There is a correlation between an increase in mental health problems and outbreaks of the pandemic, which has tended to increase as restrictions relax. The relocation, re-embarkation and return phase can be the most difficult part of a period of hibernation. While we wanted to be free, self-reliant, and in control of our own actions, we might also seek guidance, support, direction, and facilitation.
Parents, schools, educators and communities need to mobilize and support each other and create a dedicated space for young people to be open and share their concerns, hopes and desires with each other. Perhaps this is a necessary first step as we get back on the merry-go-round in life, and it could be of more use to us than just a program goal.