The world today is reeling under the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rest of society, millions of school-going students are struggling to adjust to changes forced onto the social system by the pandemic. The formal education system has suffered categorical disruptions, throwing the students’ routine out of gear. In this challenging milieu, one urgently needs to focus on the mental and physical health of this vulnerable section of society. This article highlights some of the main challenges faced by school students today, and offers suggestions on how to engage them:
New dynamics within the home:
With the pandemic, school students are spending more time at home with the rest of the family. This provides opportunities as well as challenges. There is an opportunity for bonding. Quality family-time for unwinding, having fun, and sharing experiences can help children experience a sense of belonging. At the same time, being home-bound generates challenges. Ensuring that everyone gets personal time and personal space for some part of the day can prevent the often crowded home-bound experience from becoming overwhelming.
Additionally, having simple rules and a structured routine at home can be very beneficial. This could include: a fair distribution of chores; respecting each other’s personal space; and being present for family time. During these turbulent times, behavioural issues are to be expected among children and adolescents. They need to be responded to gently, with patience and love.
An alternate structure to formal education:
Attending online classes from home is a very different experience from attending classes in school. Students can transition more easily to the online format by sharing their struggles and suggestions with their teachers and family members, and by receiving support and encouragement. Having a conducive study space at home, free from distractions, also greatly helps students to focus. It is also important for students to take special care of their eyes and to remain well hydrated during the online classes. Correspondingly, students need to understand that online teaching is a new and often difficult experience for most teachers as well and that their cooperation is essential for online classes to be effective. It is important to ensure that the number and duration of classes are optimized for the online setup.
A restricted social life:
Social distancing does not mean social isolation. With schools also being shut, students need to find means to maintain a healthy social life. It is important for them to stay connected and share with their friends, classmates, peers, and family. One practical and effective means to achieve this is through the responsible use of social media and technology.
Creating a new personal routine and focusing on self-care:
Being home-bound, students need to create their own personal routine. This would include allotting specific timings for sleep, exercise, meals, studying, house-work, leisure, and personal work. It helps if the family builds a healthy routine that includes everyone.
Students also need to take care of their physical and mental health. This can be achieved by eating healthy, sleeping adequately, having regular exercise routines, practising yoga/meditation/breathing exercises, getting a healthy dose of sunshine and fresh air (while maintaining safe distance), and taking time to unwind and engage in fun, healthy activities. Since students have online lessons, they need to minimize their screen time for the rest of the day.
The uncertainty of the current situation and the anxiety that comes with it:
Right now, nobody knows how long the pandemic will last. This uncertainty is anxiety-provoking. Cutting back on media exposure and listening only to authentic sources of information can help reduce this anxiety. Students should also be encouraged to talk about their feelings. It is important to de-stigmatize mental health care and to encourage them to seek professional help when needed. One can also effectively manage anxiety by focusing on things one can control, such as using one’s time productively, and not on things one cannot control, such as the future of the pandemic. Other therapeutic means of managing anxiety include reaching out to help others (without risking one’s own safety) and intentionally acknowledging everything one is grateful for (practising gratitude).
Remembering/being reminded that the current situation is temporary (“This too shall pass”) can help students tide through these difficult times. Probably the best way forward at this point is to take one day at a time, follow a healthy routine, be engaged in productive activities, talk about one’s feelings and thoughts, and not burden oneself with matters that are beyond one’s control.