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Kids Are Returning to Schools, But Will They Be Returning to Learning?

By Life Skills Group

Published 1 November 2021 15.00 PM

As Australian states compete against the clock and each other, vaccinating populations by the thousand, we find ourselves at the end of a two-year long race, the finish line now coming into view. Researchers at UNESCO (2021) have estimated over 70% of students around the world were affected by lockdowns and school closures. And while many of us are jumping at the chance to ditch the endless zoom meetings and enjoy the company of colleagues and peers, others, and in particular our youth, are cautious about reintegration to pre-covid normalcy. And rightfully so!

Resulting from prolonged closures, as well as continuously fluctuating restrictions (as we have experienced in parts of Australia), a suite of problems surrounding mental health and social-emotional learning have surfaced for students and educators. I shall detail how vulnerable students have fallen through the cracks of remote education, as well as the impacts of social isolation and proliferated screen-use, and how these have affected students, teachers and parents.

I shall then outline consequences of returning to face-to-face learning, including heightened anxiety and conflicting emotional states, which will lead to an ineffective and disruptive learning environment. Accordingly, the burden will be placed on teachers, who are dealing with emotions and increased workloads already, and then have the task of reconnecting, responding and nurturing students as they settle back into in-school learning.

Finally, I shall provide evidence-based strategies for a fruitful reintegration, that will ensure the social-emotional wellbeing of each child is measured and cared for, and provide educators with the necessary support and tools to do so.

Problems that were aggravated during lockdown

Research carried out by Ravens-Seiberer et al. (2021) explicates the long-term trends that impacted children (aged 11-17) during two-waves of a pandemic. They found that 82.6% of the study group reported to have been burdened by restrictions, meaning that an overwhelming majority of students will be returning to school having had negative experiences over the past two-years.

  • Vulnerable students

     

    Long-term school closures left a large portion of students from certain socio-economic, and intellectual backgrounds exposed to a series of damaging academic and psychological barriers (Evans et al.). Generally speaking, at-risk children can experience digital exclusion, lack technology access and skills, prolonged withdrawal from school activities and higher prevalence of mental health conditions.  

    For students who experience social anxiety disorder (SAD), lockdown came as a blessing in disguise. However, the treatment and diagnosis of SAD took a hit, as schools often serve as the primary location for delivering mental health services. Facing social situations of fear, to which school environments provide ample opportunity for, is integral for the identification and support required of SAD (Morrissette, 2021). Hence, prolonged lockdowns removes this anxious situation, taking diagnoses with it. Morrissette (2021) purports how children with SAD are engaging in avoidance behaviour, by circumventing the situations which bring these conditions to light.

  • Validating learning

    UNESCO (2021) identifies the challenges that have risen during online learning around the monitoring, assessing and tracking of learning. When schools closed, the structure of the education system was plunged into disarray, with changes to the calendar, assessment forms (especially written exams like the HSC), university enrollment, not to mention general engagement and observation in the classroom. Data stated that attending school and learning was more difficult than before the pandemic, for 64% of students, showing the breadth of this issue (Ravens-Sieberer et al., 2021). In regard to assessments, shifts in the delivery and timing can pose threats of inequity with each household requiring resources and technology for students to participate (UNESCO, 2021). The reconfiguration of examinations and testing disrupts regular procedures and contributes to increased levels of stress for students and their families.
  • Lack of social interaction

    Lockdown put a pause on all forms of in-person social interaction, with children and adults alike relying on technology and media to maintain connections. Ravens-Seiberer et al (2021) recorded 82.8% of children having less social contacts compared to pre-pandemic life, with two-fifths suggesting their friendships had drifted. These numbers are cause for concern, as personal development is best fostered with face-to-face interactions, and through learning in a shared school setting (Evans et al. 2021). Concurrently, the proliferation of screen use can have negative repercussions on children, especially through social media. For older students, social media is a useful tool for staying connected with friends over the pandemic, but these benefits are too often cast in the shadow of bigger issues. Cyberbullying, negative body image, and scams are just a snapshot of what goes on inside sites like Snapchat and Instagram, which our children are more exposed to in lockdown. An Adolescent Brian Cognitive Development study (2021) found that screen time aggravates behavioural issues, mental health issues, academic performance and sleep, largely overbearing the quality of online friendships. Thus, a lack of social interaction and reliance on social media have an adverse impact on young people's health.
  • Educator wellbeing

    The pandemic has been particularly onerous for our educators who too have had to deal with unexpected and continuous changes to their workplace. It is difficult for teachers to maintain connections and support learning with students online (UNESCO 2021). The transition to remote teaching increased the workload for many teachers, who already have one of the most stressful and difficult jobs in the world (more of which you can read in Teachers' Wellbeing: The Problem, The Cause and The Cure blog).
  • Lack of social interaction

    Lockdown put a pause on all forms of in-person social interaction, with children and adults alike relying on technology and media to maintain connections. Ravens-Seiberer et al (2021) recorded 82.8% of children having less social contacts compared to pre-pandemic life, with two-fifths suggesting their friendships had drifted. These numbers are cause for concern, as personal development is best fostered with face-to-face interactions, and through learning in a shared school setting (Evans et al. 2021). Concurrently, the proliferation of screen use can have negative repercussions on children, especially through social media. For older students, social media is a useful tool for staying connected with friends over the pandemic, but these benefits are too often cast in the shadow of bigger issues. Cyberbullying, negative body image, and scams are just a snapshot of what goes on inside sites like Snapchat and Instagram, which our children are more exposed to in lockdown. An Adolescent Brian Cognitive Development study (2021) found that screen time aggravates behavioural issues, mental health issues, academic performance and sleep, largely overbearing the quality of online friendships. Thus, a lack of social interaction and reliance on social media have an adverse impact on young people's health.
  • Parent stress

    The sudden shift to online work and schooling lead many parents with the additional responsibility of homeschooling and taking care of their children during the day. Such tasks are stress-inducing, particularly for parents with limited resources, and have led to a rise in family fighting (UNESCO 2021). 25% of students have reported increased arguments with their families (Ravens-Sieberer 2021), with changes to assessments and lack of external social connections, contributing to these trends.

Consequences of returning to schools

As students return to school communities, much of the anxiety developed during the pandemic will arise from changes in routine including separation anxiety, virus transmission fears, and grappling with conflicting emotions. The symptoms of which teachers will have to deal with first hand, meaning they will need all the support they can get!

  • Separation from family

    Pelaez & Novak (2020) indicate that attachment and dependency behaviours are going to be elevated after spending months at home with families. Since many lockdowns lasted for prolonged periods of time, children grew accustomed to a routine of homeschooling and increased family time. Students, especially younger ones, will find the transition hard, and it will take time for the change in routine to become normalised (Pelaez & Novak 2020). Depending on their experience of lockdown, classrooms will be filled with students with varying degrees of separation anxiety that will need to be observed, noted and addressed by teachers. Hence, re-integration is likely to result in child attachment issues, and increases the onus on teachers.
  • Fears of transmitting the virus

    While the coronavirus affects children to a lesser extent, people under the age of 12 remain ineligible for any form of vaccines in Australia, and can act as carriers of the virus. Idoiaga’s (2020) experiment reported that 19.7% of children were afraid of the virus, with the most common reaction, not of catching it themselves, but of passing it on to grandparents. Concurrently, schools and students have become hotspots for the transmission of the virus, imposing heightened anxiety on teachers (Stein-Zamir et al., 2020). Thus, students will have to grapple with another stressor by returning to schools, which could destabilise the learning environment.
  • Sparring and disparate emotions

    Both lockdowns and the return to face-to-face learning, have roused conflicting emotions in students. Idoiaga’s (2020) study explains the spectrum of emotional responses children experienced throughout the pandemic, many of which tied to social isolation, family time and online learning. Furthermore, the delivery of social-emotional learning is made difficult remotely for schools with physical mindfulness lessons having trouble delivering them online, and a lack of accountability for their completion. Therefore, students will be returning to schools in varying emotional states, with gaps in their social-emotional knowledge, and unique experiences of lockdown, creating a volatile learning space. This calls for effective reintegration policy, with an emphasis on emotional awareness and regulation, to endure the effects of lockdown on its students, and care for their wellbeing as they return to school (Idoiaga 2020).
  • Burden on teachers

    Both lockdowns and the return to face-to-face learning, have roused conflicting emotions in students. Idoiaga’s (2020) study explains the spectrum of emotional responses children experienced throughout the pandemic, many of which tied to social isolation, family time and online learning. Furthermore, the delivery of social-emotional learning is made difficult remotely for schools with physical mindfulness lessons having trouble delivering them online, and a lack of accountability for their completion. Therefore, students will be returning to schools in varying emotional states, with gaps in their social-emotional knowledge, and unique experiences of lockdown, creating a volatile learning space. This calls for effective reintegration policy, with an emphasis on emotional awareness and regulation, to endure the effects of lockdown on its students, and care for their wellbeing as they return to school (Idoiaga 2020).

Strategies for effective integration

  • Monitor, report and teach wellbeing

    Being able to track and assess how students are feeling and learning SEL skills will be vital for nurturing learning. Life Skills GO is an online, digital platform that teaches, measures and reports the wellbeing of all students. To ascertain classroom data of how their students are feeling, teachers can use the Weather Report function, which allows each student to record their emotional state. This, alongside our 150+ curriculum aligned wellbeing lessons, are graphed, making it easy for teachers to identify escalating behaviour and introduce mindfulness intervention. You are also able to see how your school is faring as a whole, with the Executive Report assessing the whole-school wellbeing program, which enables consistent management and revision.
  • Training for teachers

    To care for your teachers as they navigate chaotic and new classroom environments, Life Skills Group provides tailored Professional Development courses. Combining interactive, practical and theory based learning, our CEO Nikki Bonus delivers holistic training that fosters:
    • Tools to flourish in all aspects of your life, not just the classroom
    • Learn how to shift your brain's hardwired negativity bias to a positive one
    • Uncover the power of positive self-talk and how adopting a growth mindset can be transformative
    • Learn how to befriend stress and use it to become a healthier, more resilient and compassionate person
    • Develop an appreciation for the foundations of neuroscience, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and how applying these can enhance individual and community wellbeing

Support Your Students in Their Transition Back to School with Life Skills Group Student Wellbeing Programs

Assist your students with the transition from home to school. Our 4-week Back to School Transition helps students manage emotions and rebuild key social skills. This program focuses on key SEL topics to support students in adapting to the changes and disruption. A 14-day free trial of our online platform Life Skills GO allows you to conduct daily check-ins on your students' wellbeing, with additional resources to continue teaching SEL.

 

LEARN MORE

 

Professional Development Tailored for Your School

 

Want to learn more about how to book Professional Development Programs for your school? Check out our website for more information!

Additional Resources


 

References

Dimitropoulos, G., Cullen, E., Cullen, O. (2021). ‘“Teachers Often See the Red Flags First”: Perceptions of School Staff Regarding Their Roles in Supporting Students with Mental Health Concerns’. School Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-021-09475-1

Evans, Y., Hutchinson, J., & Ameenuddin, N. (2021). ‘Opportunity, Challenge, or Both? Managing Adolescent Socioemotional and Mental Health During Web-Based Learning.’ JMIR mental health, 8(9). https://doi.org/10.2196/26484

Idoiaga, N., Berasategi, N., Eiguren, A., & Picaza, M. (2020). ‘Exploring Children’s Social and Emotional Representations of the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Frontiers in Psychology, 11(1952). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01952

Pelaez, M. & Novak, G. 2020. ‘Returning to School: Separation Problems and Anxiety in the Age of Pandemics’. Behaviour Analysis Practice, 13(1), 521–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00467-2

Morrissette, M. (2021). School Closures and Social Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60(1), 6–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.08.436

Ravens-Sieberer, U., Kaman, A., & Erhart, M. (2021). Quality of life and mental health in children and adolescents during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: results of a two-wave nationwide population-based study. European Child Adolescent Psychiatry https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-021-01889-1

Stein-Zamir, C., Abramson, N., Shoob, H., Libal, E., Bitan, M., Cardash, T., Cayam, R., & Miskin, I. (2020). A Large COVID-19 Outbreak in a High School 10 Days After Schools’ Reopening, Israel. Eurosurveillance, 25(29).

UNESCO. (2021). Adverse Consequences of School Closures. Viewed at: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/consequences

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About Life Skills Group

Our mission is to globally empower educators to prioritise, support and measure the development of social, emotional and physical literacy for our next generation of leaders. We provide curriculum-aligned, evidence-based and measurable social, emotional and physical education solutions which enable children to thrive in their academic, personal and professional lives.

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