19 October 2023
Supporting Student Wellbeing during COVID-19 Restrictions and Remote-learning
By Deb Gould
Image credit: HaticeEROL, Pixabay
“I can’t do this anymore”, “Nothing I do makes any difference”.
By the time this edition comes out, NSW students will have been learning from home for about 10 weeks and probably have another 5 weeks to go. We all have had to adjust expectations to accepting that no-one is learning in an ideal environment. Of course, some are learning in a suboptimal environment. For those with refugee experience, the disruption to education and that sense of waiting (waiting in limbo in a transition country; waiting for lockdown to end and for life to start) is familiar. This experience does not leave these students better prepared for the current pandemic-related challenges. To the contrary, resilience is not an inevitable result of trauma and early chaos, and current hardship is devastating for some. In addition, many wellbeing activities are substantially undermined by certain environments.
Wellbeing plans represent a biopsychosocial approach. They are the things we do every day to both help us tread water safely in a crisis and to build strength and resilience. I have read and tried a few in both my personal journey and in preparing this piece. Some of what follows in this piece will be about finding what we can take from the offerings of wellbeing acronyms and gift hampers. Often we have to do try things first; I promise that you will advise students very differently on mindfulness once you have given it a go yourself. Also, I hope that readers will consider taking on some of the ideas in their own lives as part of caring for themselves.
A crisis for youth mental health
Children respond to the multiple and compounding effects of COVID, lockdown and international crises in different ways, some of which might look like a trauma response. Understandably – the situation (killer virus) triggers a survival response and lockdown can compromise healthy survival strategies (social connection) while promoting less healthy ones (vigilance, avoidance). Many have reached a crisis point. University of Melbourne Professor of Youth Mental Health, Patrick McGorry has called the crisis in youth mental health the “shadow pandemic” (Chingaipe, 2021). The number of children calling Kids Helpline has increased by 50% in NSW since the beginning of the Sydney lockdown in June 2021. Many need support to manage feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and struggles with self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Not all reach out to crisis services and many manage uncomfortable changes alone while parents and teachers witness children becoming clingy, anxious, withdrawn, angry or agitated. Many disengage from school work, citing lack of connection or plain fatigue.
It is important to identify when the “new normal” of stress, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue has morphed into a serious mental health issue requiring specialist attention. Indicators for referral are no different from in pre-COVID times: avoiding friends, disengaged from school, extremes in sleep and appetite, and self-harm. The list of resources at the end of this article contains information for referral and support.
What counselling looks like now
Counselling, not necessarily the first intervention, looks very different. Barriers to the virus can also be barriers to connection (cameras, screens and masks) and counsellors have adjusted their micro-skills to convey connection, attunement and rapport. Counselling should still be regular. While it might look like a casual conversation, therapists make it meaningful in the level of connection and attunement they offer. In this space, counsellors also engage in activities that promote wellbeing, prioritising these over cathartic disclosure and exploration of big issues – particularly when we don’t know who is listening in.
From the many frameworks around, I’ve chosen Beyond Blue’s BACE. They link each component to mood impacting neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin) that are stimulated by the activity, thus promoting wellbeing.
- Regular physical activity is well known to lower stress and anxiety and improve mood (Heijnen et al, 2016). Walking tops the list. To start and maintain activity habits, you could follow an app or YouTube channel. Some find it useful to mark times of transition, (e.g. after a lesson) with some activity.
- Beyond comfort eating, we can use diet to improve our wellbeing. Serotonin can be constituted in several foods (Jenkins et al, 2016), including bananas, legumes, eggs, turkey, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, oily fish and fermented foods. Fibre also boosts serotonin levels through its impact on gut bacteria (Carpenter, 2012).
- Regular time in the sun might help in preventing depression (Sansone et al, 2013) through its impact on Vitamin D levels, needed for serotonin production.
- Field et al (2005) found increases in serotonin and dopamine and decreases in cortisol (the “stress hormone”) after 20 minute massages.
- Sleep guidelines are well known and hard to follow. An excellent online insomnia course (This Way Up) can help adults get our 7-9 hours. Getting children to sleep is a different challenge and probably a good topic for a full article.
Achievement and a sense of mastery is particularly aligned with the developmental imperatives of primary-school-aged students. It involves attaining a goal or something valued. With many big goals out of reach at the moment, we now need to sit together and establish smaller, local ones e.g., setting tasks and completing them:
- Prioritising the day’s online school activities,
- Learning to prepare a meal,
- Having specific responsibilities.
The injunction to keep learning applies to us all – we can all develop a new skill or interest or expand an existing interest. This could be built into individual learning plans for students, encouraging initiative and research.
Connection is a little harder at the moment. Helping out is many parent/educator’s nightmare: Online platforms like Minecraft, Roblox and Discord are easy to set up and they maintain connections with friends through playing together while talking (with their voices!). Other levels of connection should also be encouraged, e.g., online class wellbeing sessions, safe touch, helping others and joint family activities.
Enjoyment, where ‘enjoy’ is an active verb. We could approach this through the lens of finding the “good thing” and taking time with it. This is not the same as the “toxic positivity” that we have become increasingly aware of during the pandemic. Conversations where someone says, “just remember how good you have it” usually end early with disconnection. A conversation with a connected other can subtly move us from a negative space; rather than advise young people to find things they enjoy, we can explore them in a conversation, giving oxygen and substance to those good things.
Music, a source of enjoyment for most, has positive impacts on our nervous systems. A curated family/class playlist can be used to start activity or create calm. Many local governments, NGOs and libraries offer free online recreational classes which may be suitable for some students and help them engage in enjoyable activities.
In addition to BACE, a few other common themes have stood out for me. They reflect an approach rather than specific activities and include:
Kindness towards self and others: compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude being able to ask for help are lovely qualities that need practice. Self-affirmations, particularly for teachers and parents include “I’m doing the best I can”.
Grieving for lost opportunities and old ways, and putting effort into making new memories. This can include marking time with celebrations e.g. first day of the season, International Day of Peace, World Teacher’s Day and World Mental Health Day. The United Nations website calendar can help to inspire the commemoration and celebration of events familiar to your student cohort.
The capacity to switch between spaces – big picture to small (when big is overwhelming), small to big (when getting obsessed with detail) and between hyper– and hypo arousal – takes a flexible nervous system. Children usually need an adult to notice the need for and then initiate the process of regulation through soothing, distraction or activation.
Routine is another adult driven process that is essential although new routines might be needed for the new context. Most children wouldn’t spontaneously set up routines, making it an adult driven activity.
Not everyone finds meditation or mindfulness easy. Having a guide or companion, e.g. a trusted friend, teacher or counsellor, take you through the activities might help. So too does aiming for mindfulness in the concrete – bringing your focus to whatever it is you are doing e.g. washing a glass, drinking water.
Schools have integrated wellbeing plans into online learning. Still, the social connection, routine and stimulation schools usually provide have been hard to replicate in online environments and not all can access the community of school online. Students’ shame about where they are studying and the sense of intrusion that videoconferencing can present, has led some to withdraw.
By now, most teachers have a sense of which students are managing and which are not; they know how to get reluctant students going and the under-resourced feeling adequate. How this all takes place is beyond the scope of this piece and there are some excellent resources listed at the end of this document. I would like to share some impressions that I have gathered:
Structure gets and keeps students moving. A clearly articulated plan for each day’s learning that encourages an active approach to the day is very helpful for most, especially if offered on video. Teachers spend energy connecting with students to create community using music, quizzes, and physical activities.
Supporting families: What does remote learning look like in a small unit with a large family? Parents might be unemployed (anxious about money, food insecurity), working from home (stressed, internet overused, unable to help with schoolwork) or going to work (anxious about bringing COVID home). Like teachers, many parents feel inadequate to the task and are experiencing burnout from multitasking. To compound this, the wish for a better life for their family can translate into pressure on children and, in lockdown, to a sense of hopes dashed again. Families do need and appreciate contact from a teacher. Planned individual catch ups or wellbeing checks with parents help to clarify expectations and resources (e.g. bandwidth), provide support and link families with additional supports and services. It is particularly important to reassure parents that they need not expect children to spend the whole “school day” doing school work. Could we reframe alternative activities as offering learning opportunities: Discussing a TV program with a parent, speaking another language, helping with household chores or doing exercise?
When I talk with parents, we generally discuss a wellbeing plan for the school day that involves getting the nervous system ready to learn:
- Starting with connection: Gentle waking and adjustment time with a cuddle, chat or brief play;
- Ready the body with grooming, food and hydration;
- Adult and child/student review the day’s activities together, recording those things with a time stamp (e.g. Maths Zoom at 11am) and then starting with the activity that makes them most happy e.g. most manageable, inspiring or exciting. If there is a difficult adult/child ratio, adults are still encouraged to try to have some one on one time, giving calm attention. It’s OK if the day starts later.
- Personal space is a complex issue with strong cultural dynamics that many young people flag as being important. No matter how small a space the family inhabits, there would be spaces that can belong to each person that they can go to when needing time out. Creativity might drive some, e.g. a cushion that no-one else is allowed to sit on. Getting outdoors is also a useful circuit breaker.
There is such a range of responses to the pandemic, lockdown and remote learning, depending on age, past experience, and resources. We can’t predict how students will respond. We do well enough just staying attuned to them. When we are worn down and afraid, that is hard. Parents might need support to realise they can approach their children’s feelings with respect and gentle curiosity. Kindness won’t mean poor discipline. Extra time to play and relax doesn’t need to come at the cost of education. Being able to help kids sit with difficult feelings and then watch them settle can be a lovely, if tiring, experience.
Teachers may feel that they have no more to give. It takes extra energy to get a class engaged over zoom. Regardless of how you feel, be mindful of the impact you have – you might offer that “one good thing” or an accumulation of many small things (eg personalised feedback, kindness) that tips a student towards connection and engagement. If you are struggling to be aware of this, ask for help.
Wellbeing plans succeed or fail depending on context; there are so many variables in the lives of the children we parent, educate and care for. Some of these present real challenges yet we often feel that we have failed. Let’s aim for good enough: structure, compassion, grounding and connection work everywhere. And reaching out for help …. Right now, it is normal to feel challenged, fatigued and worried.
Parentline – https://www.parentline.org.au/how-we-help/
Parentline is a free telephone counselling and support service for families in NSW with children aged 0 – 18. It is free and available between 9am – 9pm on weekdays and 4pm – 9pm on weekends. Parentline is staffed by trained counsellors and psychologists who will use interpreters to discuss a variety of concerns including parenting, remote learning and child development. Call 1300 1300 52
Kids Helpline – https://kidshelpline.com.au/
Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) is a free telephone and online counselling service for children and young people aged 5-25 years. It is available 24 hours per day. Callers who require an interpreter should call TIS first on 131 450, who can then arrange for an interpreter to be available during the call to Kids Helpline.
STARTTS’ services are for people of any age living in NSW who are
- asylum seekers
- from refugee-like backgrounds.
Anyone can make a referral to STARTTS, including service providers, medical professionals, a family member or friend of the person or the person themselves.
Call them (on 1800 512 348) or webchat) if you need to chat about the way COVID has impacted you. This service can add a telephone interpreter to the call. So just tell them what language you need.
Beyond blue advocates the acronym BACE to guide wellbeing activities and they present information in several languages.
People can create their own accounts on Headspace and take part in discussions and activities as well as read resources. Only avaialble in English.
Smiling Mind – https://www.smilingmind.com.au/
Meditation app with dedicated programs for children and young people.
The Refugee Health Network – http://refugeehealthnetwork.org.au/covid-19-information-resources-services/
5 Ways to Wellbeing – https://5waystowellbeing.org.au/tools-resources/for-professionals/
The ‘5 ways’ are based on extensive international research about the modifiable determinants of wellbeing.
Australian Psychological Society – https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/COVID-19-Australians
Very good fact sheets on a number of issues including specific information for students with learning difficulties.
Black Dog Institute on Working from Home https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEHPyq9rLfA
This was made last year but quite a nice summary for workers.
I imagine all schools have access to this LMS which can provide programs/advice tailored to specific class requirements. It seems most public schools are using Google Classroom and the Google suite of software for creating, teaching, coordinating and submitting work.
Foundation House School’s In for Refugees – https://sifr.foundationhouse.org.au/app/uploads/2020/09/Supporting-students-from-refugee-backgrounds-during-COVID-19-restrictions.pdf
Aimed at teachers in Victoria, this resource provides information about trauma responses and ideas for useful practices for home-schooling.
Student Wellbeing Hub – https://studentwellbeinghub.edu.au/educators/covid-19/
This hub has resources, including webinar recordings, for parents and educators dealing with community trauma and more. They also present a general wellbeing framework (within which practices relating to COVID-19 could be formulated).
Beaumaris Primary School – https://www.beaups.vic.edu.au/articles/158
Quick Guide to Student Mental Health and Wellbeing https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/health/mentalhealth/quick-guide-to-student-mental-health-and-wellbeing-resources.pdf
A very good piece with excellent, if brief comments about many topics with great links to services and advice.
National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/student-wellbeing-covid-19-regional-remote-australia/ (posted March 2020) This article is Crawford’s reflection on her study of students who have been studying online – her cohort are mature aged but still have messages for teaching practice.
Association of Independent Schools of NSW – https://www.aisnsw.edu.au/learning-from-home/wellbeing
They have a webinar (over an hour long) and clear infographics on staff and student wellbeing. An excellent resource list with links to many organisations for ideas, information and services.
ReachOut – https://schools.au.reachout.com/covid-19
This website is very thorough, with small clips covering many topics. Lots of interactive things for students – schools can probably use them during online teaching e.g. a check in quiz that gives ideas about actions to take.
ReachOut has two apps – Worry Time and Breathe – both really nice resources aimed at pausing the cycle of stress-worry-exhaustion. A young person would need help setting them up. The apps use the principle of external container/ego that maintains a structure.
Raising Children – The Australian Parenting Website
This Way Up – https://thiswayup.org.au/
Information for parents that might need to be translated. Some videos that staff could watch. All in English.
- Carpenter, S. (2012). That gut feeling. Monitor on Psychology, 43(8), 50.
- Chingaipe, S. (2021). The Shadow Pandemic. The Saturday Paper No. 366
- Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of neuroscience, 115(10), 1397-1413.
- Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). Neuromodulation of aerobic exercise—a review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1890.
- Jenkins, T. A., Nguyen, J. C., Polglaze, K. E., & Bertrand, P. P. (2016). Influence of tryptophan and serotonin on mood and cognition with a possible role of the gut-brain axis. Nutrients, 8(1), 56.
- Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2013). Sunshine, serotonin, and skin: a partial explanation for seasonal patterns in psychopathology? Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 10(7-8), 20.