7 May 2020

Efforts needed to help children avoid mental health consequences of lockdown

7:19 am on 7 May 2020

Education advisors are urging schools to help children avoid mental health problems for years to come due to the lockdown.

Students at Pacific Advance Secondary School. Note only use identifying pictures for stories about PASS - only non-identifiying pictures may be reused.

There are fears that some children are falling behind in their learning during the lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Experts from the University of Auckland and consultants Cognition Education said the Christchurch earthquakes and Australian bushfires showed that teachers should resist the temptation to launch straight back into normal lessons after a major event.

Their warning comes as schools prepare to find out today the rules that will determine how many of their students will be able to return to school at alert level 2.

It also follows fears that some children are falling behind in their learning during the lockdown, especially if they do not have access to a computer, or were already at risk of disengaging from schooling.

A different approach

A professor of education at the University of Auckland, Peter O'Connor, said teachers were often told to re-establish their classroom routines and keep children busy to help them get back to normal after disruption.

But he said research showed that was not a good idea.

"Racing back to catch up is about the worst thing that you can do. The research, the evidence, tells us that spending time there and then on children's wellbeing pays dividends much later and further down the track in terms of re-engaging children with learning."

He said some children would have seen their parents lose their jobs, some would have been protected from news about the pandemic, and others would be well aware that thousands of people around the world were dying from Covid-19.

O'Connor said teachers would need to acknowledge those experiences but without making a big deal of them.

"What's really important, and I think we learnt this from Christchurch, is that we can't go back as if nothing's happened. We have to have in place, things for children in the curriculum to directly address what's happened in the world."

The University of Auckland had developed a [www.teritotoi.org website] to help teachers and it had received more than 70,000 page views since going live earlier this week, he said.

O'Connor said teachers needed to start by re-establishing their relationships with their students and picture books were invaluable.

"The picture books that we're recommending teachers are ones that talk about why you might be frightened of something you can't see," he said.

"You can use fiction to help children to understand the real world and talk about the deep things which sit underneath the Covid response without dwelling on it."

"If you don't do that, you see what happens in Christchurch. Ten years after the earthquake there is a whole generation of young adolescents who live with extraordinary levels of anxiety and it's because we didn't do that when schools reopened in 2011 in Christchurch and we run the risk this year of repeating that mistake if we don't focus on children's wellbeing when we go back to school."

'There has to be a transition time'

A consultant with Cognition Education and a former principal of a Christchurch secondary school, Steve Saville, said an immediate return to classrooms-as-usual was a bad idea.

"All you're going to do is pile stress upon the learner, who will feel they're behind and that will be a trigger for the anxieties, I believe, to manifest themselves more," he said.

"So I do think there has to be a transition time of an action or actions which can help move from the world of almost social isolation through to a busy immersion in school."

Saville said the Christchurch experience showed teachers might need to take special care of their students for a long time.

"Any anxieties or tensions will manifest themselves in a variety of different ways over quite a long time scale and be triggered by quite unforeseen circumstances," he said.

The president of the Principals' Federation, Perry Rush, said people should not assume children had simply experienced some boring weeks at home.

"That experience of staying away from other people, of having nothing to do with them for an extended period of time, the information we've seen internationally and of course locally about people losing their lives to this virus, these are really significant things and it's very important we're sensitive to how this is impact on young people," he said.

Rush said principals were aware of the emotional impact the lockdown might have had on their pupils and they would prioritise that in their return to classes.

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