A report prepared by UNICEF has pointed to the need for psychosocial support to children by revealing that the COVID-19 pandemic in India has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education, besides 28 million children who were undergoing pre-school education in Anganwadi centres.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a ‘new normal’ which includes wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and working from home. While taking calls, attending meetings online, and hosting virtual parties might have settled into our routines, we cannot disregard the fact that it still might be stressful for children to deal with. The impacts of the pandemic have been felt differently among different population groups. Among these, one group is facing additional challenges to understand, absorb, and deal with the changes that the pandemic has brought about in its wake: the children.
School closures are preventing children from access to learning and limiting their interactions with peers.
In the current context of the lockdown and restriction of movement, children have constrained access to socialization, play, and even physical contact, critical for their psychosocial wellbeing and development. School closures are preventing children from access to learning and limiting their interactions with peers. Almost abruptly, children have been uprooted from their safe and secure school environment and their comfortable, traditional chalk and board system of teaching-learning and planted incongruously in front of screens to battle with attentiveness, connectivity issues, excessive screen time, and online learning with a huge amount of work left to be done themselves.
Children may feel confused and at loss with the current situation leading to frustration, disquietude and anxiety, which will only increase with overexposure to mass and social media, especially among adolescents. Some parents and teachers are also struggling to find ways to explain and communicate with children about the current situation in a way that is understandable by this age group. On the other hand, children being keen observers of the environment around them, are reflecting and reacting to the stress experienced by their parents and caregivers which is unavoidably affecting their wellbeing.
This situation has created gigantic volumes of stress and anxiety in the minds of children. Overtly this is visible in complaints such as those including stomach aches or headaches, frequent occurrences of nightmares and problems in sleeping, crying for no apparent reason, demonstrating clingy behaviour, being afraid of left alone, decreased levels of interest in playing, and difficulties in eating. So much so that due to this, parents might start noticing behavioural changes in their children such as excessive arguments, refusals, opposition, defiance, or withdrawal, and it is not unusual for some kids to fall further behind in their studies. During this phase, the support and guidance of teachers and parents are very crucial.
‘Anxiety travels faster than a virus. I get four to six calls a week from parents whose children are showing behavioural changes during the lockdown,’ said Harish Shetty, a social psychiatrist for LH Hiranandani hospital, Mumbai. Children as young as three are experiencing COVID related stress and wondering if they have been put to some sort of punishment. Shetty recollected a case where a six-year-old woke up continuously with nightmares of the virus chasing him. ‘Children dream of their days in school, playgrounds but now they are cooped up inside and are not making happy memories’.
Schools and homes have changed roles. The online teaching model has to be embedded with an emotional compass more than anything else as mental health issues have already peaked, and the domino effect is going to be felt over time. Instead of identifying the learning gaps in this transition, parents must help their children cope with anxiety, uncertainty and change. Social-emotional learning will help children to cope and prevent arousal symptoms and strong negative emotions. Capsules of meditation, yoga, motivational conversations will help to deconstruct the conflict that children are facing. Identifying their areas of stress, detachment and confusion should become an integral part of the teaching-learning experience. Because the end-goal of all learning is to help children find their ‘selves’ and connect knowledge to their happiness, opines Ameeta Mulla Wattal, Principal Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi.
Parents can practice the following steps to provide psychosocial support to children while they are stuck at home:
Be an empathetic listener
It is critical for parents to talk with the kids about what’s going on, keeping communication as open as you can. Let them know that it’s okay to feel however they feel – whether that’s scared, worried, angry, sad, or something else. Try to answer your child’s questions and reassure them in an age-appropriate manner. While you don’t need to know all the answers to their questions, talking things through can help them feel calmer. You can use the medium of stories to narrate all about the pandemic to the kids and also help them understand the societal expectations of wearing masks, staying indoors, and maintaining social distance during this time.
Don’t try to create watertight schedules
Being on the screen all time can be stressful for young kids. Parents should aim for anywhere from two to four hours of schoolwork each day, depending on the age of their children. Don’t try to recreate school with six to seven hours of curricular content. Instead, focus on shorter, higher-quality engagement focussing more on bite-sized learning. At the same time, do not over-indulge your kids and maintain as many regular routines going as possible to help your child feel safe and secure. This can include things like having regular times for going to bed, waking up, eating meals, and making time for hobbies.
Make fun-time a routine
While this is most certainly not a vacation, it’s important to have some fun with your children while they are at home. Parents must remember to use this as an opportunity to bond with their kids and include fun activities in their kids’ schedules as they have a positive washback effect on learning and also help calm the worries of the children. These activities can also help them channelize their pent-up energies in a positive manner such as by drawing what they feel or writing a story about their experiences in the current circumstances. ‘Students are missing out on the crucial balance between studies and play. The emotional effects of being physically distant from their friends, combined with the impact of losing out on playtime could potentially induce stress in students,’ says Pravin Prakash, Chief People’s Officer, BYJU’S.
Find ways for peer interaction
Children are used to a lot of social contact at school, so they will definitely feel the effects of being distanced from them even after a few days. While it might not be safe for your kids to see their friends in person, you should allow them to interact with them online, beyond social media or text messaging. Video chats are often the closest thing to seeing someone in person and are a great way to get in social time without endangering yourself or others. Arushi Sharma, a 36-year old mother of a 5-year old daughter states, ‘Initially she did not understand why some were playing in the gardens but not her. But now, via video calls with cousins from across the globe, she has realised she is not the only one stuck at home,’ said Arushi Sharma.
Teach humility and trust
Minimize discussions about COVID-19. Make it clear that smart, capable, and compassionate people are working on the problem. Most of all, let them know this too shall pass, as long as we make smart choices and don’t panic. If you do this your child can develop valuable life skills that last, not just during this crisis, but for a lifetime.
Parents should be gentle and understanding with children in order to help them adjust to this new learning schedule. It’s not always going to go well. At times, the kids are going to need a break. Parents and families know best what their children need, and they should really listen to them and help them swim through these murky waters.
It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that ‘hope’ is not about pretending as if everything is normal, it is rather about recognising that things can be difficult and in the midst of all these turbulent times we can create a ‘new normal’ and still find ways to grow as individuals and as families and strengthen our connections with each other and with the people we care about.
Sanjhee Gianchandani has a Masters’ degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. She works as an ELT editor in the K-8 space. Her articles have been widely published in the educational space in magazines such as The Progressive Teacher, Digital Learning Magazine, and Teacher Plus Magazine.