Let's connect young people to tackle lockdown's woes

Lucy Hayter

Almost 9 million children in England returned to schools this week.

They join hundreds of millions of students globally who have either already returned to school or hope to soon.

The priorities for schools will be markedly different this year owing to Covid-19 - regular handwashing, staggered lesson times, social distancing and restrictions on extracurricular activities will be the new norm.

For teachers, the introduction of blended learning approaches will also be a priority, with the prospect of further localised lockdowns hovering in the background.

A worldwide wellbeing concern

Yet as schools start to reopen, supporting teachers in developing the social and emotional skills of young people - to allow them to be able to articulate their anxieties and fears associated with Covid-19 - will be at least as important as meeting curricular goals and achieving learning outcomes.

A Unesco study has found that the mental health implications of the Covid-19 outbreak are far-reaching, with one survey in Thailand reporting that 70 percent of young people say the pandemic is affecting their mental health, causing stress, worry and anxiety.

Furthermore, a new survey carried out by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change backs this up by highlighting how some students reported that their ability to learn effectively has decreased as a result of the lockdown, as has their general mental health and wellbeing.

For example, one student from India commented: "The connection between teacher and a student is completely lost, the aura of a classroom does not exist, the quality of education has decreased".

Another, this time from the UK, said: 'I am excited to see my friends and get back to a little bit of normality. I am worried about the virus spreading more but also worried about how our lessons will be changed and whether my education as a whole will be worsened'.

Lastly, a student from the US explained: "I am excited to be able to see my friends and teachers again, but I am also nervous to see what changes have to be made in light of ensuring the safety of the students".

An impact that cannot be ignored

This is all perhaps no surprise, with new research from Canada highlighting how young people learn from their peers and how it has a positive impact on their personality and sense of identity, and how 'disruptions of close peer relationships have been associated with depression, guilt and anger in children'.

The same research also suggests that technology can be part of the answer, citing 'video-based social gatherings' as a potential therapeutic strategy for supporting children, alongside other new routines, such as home-based physical exercise and arts and crafts projects.

Our own experience suggests that this is true.

When lockdowns caused school closures, Generation Global, the Institute's education programme, identified the need for an online, self-directed education product.

As such, we developed the Ultimate Dialogue Adventure(UDA), specifically designed for students aged 13-17 affected by school closures.

Through independent and interactive gamified learning, as well as engagement with global peers via videoconference and online dialogue spaces, young people learn key skills of dialogue, such as critical thinking and active listening, and how to reflect on - and process - their experiences and emotions.

It's early days, but all 43 students that participated in the pilot of the UDA reported that they had learned new things, with 89 per cent indicating that it was relevant for their future. Furthermore, we have now had over 1,000 students participating in the UDA from over 17 countries.

Bringing people together

With the potential for lockdowns to spring up anywhere around the world in the months ahead, much will be asked of teachers in terms of delivering education in a time of uncertainty and disruption.

Fortunately, many institutions and teachers have already shown themselves to be great innovators in using technology to enable learning during lockdowns.

Teachers and school leaders now have an opportunity to deploy that spirit of innovation to temper the negative impact that social and physical distancing has on the social interactions that are so important to children's wellbeing and their educational outcomes.

This article originally appeared on TES.com on 4 September 2020.