Since the schools closed, students have experienced many changes. Not only have they aged, but they have become different people, having experienced a pandemic at such a young age. So what should schools expect when children return, and how can they prepare to support their emotional adjustment and protect their development beyond academic success?
As a society, we have always struggled to accept that school is not just about academic success. School is where children make friends, meet bullies, face anxieties, experiment with identities, have secret adventures, live independent lives, and learn who they are away from their parents. If their home environment is unstable for some reason, they have the chance to live a different life where they can feel they have a higher degree of freedom and control. That this is essential to their psychosocial development is indisputable.
Being home for the better part of two years deprived them of these necessary developmental opportunities. No doubt the children will have missed their friends, and the routine of going to school may have induced grief and apathy. Beyond that, however, several children will have experienced Covid-induced health anxieties, loss of loved ones, varying textures of violence, financial crises and several other issues.
The symptom that grabs everyone’s attention seems to be an increase in screen time. Less attention was given to ‘nuisance’ symptoms such as disturbed sleeping or eating habits, lack of concentration and motivation to study, sullen behavior and temper tantrums. Older children have been taken to doctors for everything from mild mood disorders and anxiety to addiction and self-harm. Despite our intention to support our children, it seems that we have instead decided to “manage” them and place the burden of adjustment on them, academically and emotionally. It is one of the great privileges of adulthood to develop amnesia for how we would have liked to be treated when we were children and teenagers.
Children don’t always communicate directly and often go unnoticed when they try. They also don’t have (read: aren’t given) an emotional vocabulary to explain the complexity of emotions they might be going through (neither do adults, if I’m being honest). Instead, they withdraw, get angry, stop studying, or lose focus. Our instinct, without thinking, is to respond by telling them to commit, to stop feeling angry, to study harder, and to focus more. Unsurprisingly, such advice never works. These are expressions of their feelings. Retreating into their phone, for example, may well be an expression of loneliness, despair, and a sense of unmooring. Children are aware of everything around them. Keeping it inside, trying to make sense of it, can be overwhelming. Quitting – backing off into technology – could be a protective response that offers stimulation and engagement on their terms. Other responses to this felt helplessness, no less extreme, could be addictions of all kinds and attempts at self-harm.
It is therefore unreasonable to expect children to return to “normal” just because they are back in school. Students may find it difficult to re-assimilate with friends, while others may not know how to study in a classroom. Schools must be prepared to accommodate hundreds of students, each carrying the burden of the past two years, together under one roof. Now is the time to think beyond labeling students as “late” or “depressed” or exhibiting “behavioural problems” and sending them for behavioral interventions or calling their parents to reprimand them. This is an opportunity to move from a punitive attitude to a compassionate and supportive attitude. The goal now is not to move them from one class to another, but to help them mourn what they have lost, recover and feel safe again. .
It is a call to administrations — governments, schools and APEs.
Be proactive in resolving psychological and behavioral issues. Help parents understand “symptoms” as responses to difficulties their children have been through. Give parents and children a vocabulary to talk about their concerns. Use age-appropriate language and creative ways to help children express their feelings and challenges. Make an effort to find out which children may have faced death and other identifiable crises during this time. Contact them personally; Tell them you care. Don’t ask why someone didn’t attend a class; ask what’s going on inside. Pay attention to the really calm or obedient child. Pay attention to behavioral signs that are completely discordant from the child you knew. Don’t be afraid to ask kids what’s going on with them – often they’re hoping someone will notice and ask. You don’t have to have all the answers, just listen to them.
Create professional systems that involve all kinds of mental health professionals who can help you navigate these issues. Provide school guidance services. Create informed and capable systems that students can truly rely on (not as bodies that report to teachers and principals in the “best interests of the child”). These can be psychotherapists, counselors, parents, teachers, and even some older students who, with some basic training, can become the first line of therapeutic relief and instill a sense of community. These efforts can also take the form of team activities, sports, drama, etc., which can be seamlessly integrated into the daily schedule without additional budgetary or personal stressors.
The time to gradually assimilate these changes into our systems is over. This is a call for a pendulum change in the approach to student life. Even so, the idea is not to treat mental health as the flavor of the day; it is to show him sustained attention. This is doable imminently without disrupting other school activities and schedules.
We haven’t even begun to understand the long-term impact of this period on children’s lives. Short-term repair, at the very least, will require additional commitment to the psychosocial development of children. It is therefore also a good time to examine what education really means and the place that school has in the lives of our children.
(These insights were developed in conversations with Nupur Dhingra Paiva, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of Love & Rage: Inner World of Children. Chandra is a psychologist and founder of the KindSpace Center for Mental Health)