Education in these uncertain times: need for a paradigm shift

Anindita Bhattacharya

In a recent interaction with government schoolteachers from Uttarakhand about schools reopening post COVID-19, teachers shared their concerns. Some of the questions they asked were: How do we support our students’ wellbeing when they are back in schools? In what ways have these past few months affected our students cognitively, socially and emotionally? How do we openly discuss the sense of anxiety which all of us have encountered in the past few months? How do we become more empathetic towards students’ experiences?

Though the session was virtual, the underlying feeling of anxiety among educators was quite palpable, it was clear that as educators our focus is now gradually shifting to the socio-emotional wellbeing of our students along with the worries about building academic competencies.

It is not easy to be an educator in times like these, it is a constant struggle sometimes to figure out ways to calm our own nerves while simultaneously devising strategies to help our students cope with the challenges of these uncertain times.

The world we are a part of now, not only consists of exponentially increasing number of real worries which hover over our heads but also our imagined anxieties about problems we might confront: dread of catching the virus, the hypothetical awful class where students stare vacantly, embarrassing oneself in work meetings, technological challenges in taking online classes, confronting a particularly difficult student, balancing personal and professional life, the direction of one’s career….

As the veil of uncertainty falls over almost everything we do during the current pandemic, our anxieties seem inevitable and an integral part of our lives. Our students also seem to be trapped in the same unforgiving world of anxieties: with raging wars and pandemic, schools in lockdown, social media dictating their self-image and body image, rising academic demands and competitiveness. Just the other day, I had a parent share with me that her child was extremely worried about going back to school. The child was not sure how she was going to re-adjust to the demands of the school now that she has been physically away from it for so many months. She would get these recurrent nightmares about failing the exams.

According to WHO, worldwide almost 10-20 per cent of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Most of these mental health conditions have an early onset by the age of 14; suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds. It is unfortunate that a majority of children suffering from these conditions do not receive timely care or seek help. The psychosocial consequences of not addressing these mental health needs could be immense and impact children and adolescents from leading a happy and fulfilling life.

In times like these, Maya Angelou’s words bring a glimmer of hope, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” So how do we not be overpowered by the anxiety provoking situations around us?

The answer to this question may seem complicated but the first step towards it could lie within ourselves. Being aware about the anxieties and accepting them as a part of our lives and then coming up with ways to endure and deal with them in the best possible way.

Role of education in dealing with anxiety
When we think of education as a means of empowering individuals, it can provide students with much-needed opportunities to learn skills to nurture their own and other’s wellbeing, especially in times of distress. It can also play an important role in helping students know themselves well and in the process deal with their anxieties better. Education has the potential to provide students with forums to develop a receptive attitude to existential questions, gain awareness about their emotions, engage with their own and others’ anxieties in an authentic and constructive manner.

There can be two ways in which education can help deal with the anxieties of our times:

  1. Promotion and prevention: Education can help students identify their own areas of strengths and weaknesses and learn strategies to cope with their anxieties much before they reach a point of distress.
  2. Early identification and intervention: Educators who are aware of the signs or symptoms of anxiety can help in early identification, referring to the right resources and providing the much needed care and support to an anxious student to cope with their anxieties.

Path 1: Promotion and prevention
I think the time is ripe for us educators to start talking about mental health and wellbeing and make it a part of our agenda while designing school curricula. What are we training students for? Is our responsibility only to teach them academic concepts; hone them intellectually? How do we dissociate students’ acquisition of knowledge, their performance academically from their mental states? The emotional, cognitive, and psychological struggles students go through are very real and the experiences they have during their time in school will influence their work and lives in future. Are we really preparing them to handle life?

Are not schools the best places to teach students skills to become more resilient and happy and face the challenges of life? Students spend close to 30 hours per week, a significant amount of their productive years in school. There are also enough research studies available in Positive Education which talk about how character traits and wellbeing are malleable or ‘skill-like’ and can be improved with good teaching and practice. Positive Education (Seligman and Adler, 2018) looks at schools as places where students not only develop their intellectual capabilities, but also cultivate other important skills, such as character strengths, virtues, and competencies, which together support their wellbeing.

There are hardly any subjects in school which address wellbeing or teach students to take care of themselves and work on positive mental health, learn skills like grit, optimism, resilience, maintain good relationships, manage emotions, mindfulness and understand meaningful living. If students move on to higher education or work life with only academic skills and not adequate skills to take care of their mental health needs, their skills may not be of much use to them, others, or to the larger society.

Issues related to identity, LGBTQIA+ communities, advocacy and health promotion if addressed at all are often taught in a way that only provides information and not adequate ways of dealing with these issues emotionally. What are we teaching our children then? Are we telling them that it is okay to talk about mental health issues but not address them? Are we teaching them indirectly to create an invisible boundary of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ where mental health problems happen to people out there?

There is a clear need for a paradigm shift, where education settings re-examine and revise their priorities, curricula and services to cater to the needs of the children and help them lead a productive and meaningful life. A comprehensive education would be one which highlights the role of mental health and wellbeing and teaches students ways to address these.

An important step in this direction in India, has been the introduction of the happiness curriculum in government schools of Delhi, where the objective is to focus on student wellbeing and teach them mindfulness, social-emotional learning, critical thinking, problem solving and relationship building.

Most definitely, schools can have a larger meaningful impact on students’ lives and help them handle their anxieties better by either having a dedicated time and space for positive education interventions or by incorporating them in creative ways within the curriculum. Schools across the world are trying innovative ways to do this.

An interesting example is the way in which the Bhutanese Ministry of Education collaborated with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania to co-develop the Gross National Happiness (GNH) curriculum. Meant for grades 7 through 12, it targets life skills such as a) Mindfulness: calm awareness of thoughts, emotions, and surroundings – starting a class with just 5-10 minutes of mindfulness-based relaxation strategies seem to have done wonders in enhancing student wellbeing. b) Empathy: identifying what others are feeling and thinking. c) Self-awareness: understanding one’s own strengths, talents, limitations and goals. d) Coping with emotions: identifying, understanding and managing emotions. e) Communication: being active and constructive with others. f) Interpersonal relationships: healthy and loving interactions with friends and family. g) Creative thinking: developing ideas that are novel and useful. h) Critical thinking: analyzing, applying, synthesizing, and evaluating information as a guide to beliefs and actions. i) Decision-making: choosing the best beliefs or action plans from available options and j) Problem solving: learning shortcuts to solve theoretical and practical problems.

Fifteen months after its introduction, the GNH curriculum has had an immensely positive impact on both adolescent well-being and their academic achievements. Bhutan’s Ministry of Education has decided to implement the program on a national scale and is currently looking to introduce the curriculum in every public secondary school in the country (Adler & Seligman, 2016).

Gratitude related strategies have also been found useful in dealing with hard times; simple activities like journaling about three good things that happened during the day or writing a gratitude letter and sharing it with the source seem to have a huge impact on the quality of life of children and adolescents (Emmons, 2007).

Mental health is important for all of us and by integrating subjects within the school curriculum on wellbeing and resilience we can teach our children to prioritize their mental health and see it as an extremely important factor to lead a meaningful life and contribute meaningfully to the society as well.

Path 2: Early identification and intervention
Anxiety, also being a primary emotion, serves an important role in our lives; it warns us when something goes wrong and indicates that the demands of the environment may far exceed our coping resources. An optimal amount of anxiety, in fact, may propel us towards action, but when in children and youth this anxiety is beyond the normal threshold, they may start showing overt signs of distress. We may be the first point of contact for students exhibiting clear signs of anxiety and distress.

Recently, a teacher friend approached me worried about a student who had written in a short essay about ‘himself’ – his disappointment with his life. The essay was full of thoughts like ‘Things will never get better again; I am a disappointment for my parents’. Written or verbal statements like these mentioning despair, suicide or death or statements to the effect that the student is ‘going away for a long time’ are clear safety risk indicators indicating immense amount of distress. Responses indicating a sense of doom and hopelessness and indicating ‘suicide’ as a way out, severe hopelessness, depression, isolation, and withdrawal warrant immediate attention.

The signs of distress may not always be that apparent. In some cases, students may show subtler signs which may indicate distress and difficulty in coping with personal, interpersonal, or academic pressure. A combination of these signs will mean that the students may need additional support and help. It is important to notice any changes that are inconsistent with usual behaviour. The more symptoms we see, greater may be the level of distress.

One may notice physical signs, such as poor personal hygiene, excessive fatigue, significant weight loss or gain, noticeable signs of cuts, frequently falling ill or unusual difficulty in making eye contact.

Sometimes, academic performance could be the first noticeable sign of distress, for instance, a student who is repeatedly absent from class, missing assignments frequently, shows a progressive deterioration in the quality of work or gives unreasonable excuses. Some students may also show overtly perfectionistic traits and may be afraid of performing terribly in school.

Distress can also affect cognitive processing; student may show difficulty in concentrating and even simple things may seem hard to focus on. Some may also go to great lengths in avoiding class participation or group-based activities.
• Behavioural or emotional signs could include excessive crying and inexplicable tears, extreme fear of school, grief, anger outbursts, unprovoked yelling or aggressive behaviour, sudden withdrawal from social contact or excessively animated response unlike prior observations, signs of severe anxiety or irritability or demanding or detached behaviour, lack of response to teachers or mentors reaching out to them.

We may notice just one sign and it is possible that any one indicator, by itself, only means that the student is having an ‘off’ day or a ‘bad’ day. We may also have a ‘gut-feeling’ that something is not right. There is no harm though in checking with the student to understand the situation better. However, if we notice more than one serious sign (e.g., a student writes an answer expressing hopelessness and thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of smaller signs (e.g., emotional outbursts, repeated absences and noticeable cuts on the arm), these may indicate that it is time to take some action on behalf of the student by either directly approaching them, talking to the parents, or referring them to the counselling team in school.

Anxiety disorders in school children
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders that school children may encounter. These disorders could make students feel extremely distressed, uncomfortable, scared, and exhausted in various situations,where normally individuals will not react in that way. In the long run, these disorders if not identified early can impair the quality of life of the students and affect various aspects of their lives.

The commonest anxiety disorders in children and adolescents are:
Generalized anxiety disorder: Children excessively worry about various situations like going to school, their own health, health of close family members, or they may have an impending sense of doom about their future. Students may also show physiological symptoms like headache, stomachache, exhaustion and/or panic. This may make them miss school or avoid social situations.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): This disorder may cause children to have repetitive intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive actions to handle their anxiety (compulsions). These thoughts could be around safety, hygiene, self, etc.

Phobias: Children may be excessively afraid of specific situations, objects, or individuals – fear of animals or closed spaces; it can make children avoid things they fear. Many children suffer from social phobia, where they fear being judged in social situations. Some may avoid performing or presenting in front of people.

Panic disorder: Individuals may feel intense physiological symptoms like palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, nausea, or sweaty hands when they encounter an anxiety provoking situation.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This could happen after an individual encounters a traumatic event or experience and lead to frequent flashbacks about the event causing excessive amounts of anxiety and emotions related to it.

Separation anxiety disorder: High level of distress when separated from a caregiver.

Ways in which teachers can support students:
• Modelling calm behaviour and brainstorming with the students about strategies which can help them feel better (e.g., washing face with water, listening to music, hugging, going for a run, etc.)
• Talking to parents about what usually works to calm the student down.
• Reducing the workload if needed and being flexible with assessment and giving student extra time if required.
• Creating a routine to help them structure their days better.
• Teaching certain relaxation techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness.
• Encouraging students to seek help and allowing the student to access counselling services if and when required.
• Having a buddy system and encouraging students to support each other.

In many cases of students in distress, just the act of empathic listening, initiating discussion about problems, and conveying concern for the student’s wellbeing is adequate. However, in certain scenarios, the student may need professional help for learning effective ways of coping.

Some very certain scenarios when one should refer students for counselling could be – When we realize that support is becoming long term, more like an ongoing therapy, or when repeated efforts to help the student do not seem enough and the student clearly remains distressed. If the student’s difficulties require professional support, and one feels ill equipped to handle them it would be wiser to consult the school counsellor or a mental health professional.

Staying sensitive, staying vigilant
In a world fraught with difficulties, education can be that one important tool which can guide us and our students to deal better with the world around us: not just in terms of knowledge acquisition or gaining important information but also in understanding ourselves and others better. Education can provide our students a means to become more self-aware, nurture skills to become more tolerant of the world, others and in dealing with anxieties about the constantly changing world which seem inevitable.

There is an increasing need to understand the contribution of education to an individual’s social, emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing better and proactively develop ways to help students learn skills essential for their own and other’s mental health.

Dealing with anxieties due to the pandemic

The Coronavirus has thrown us all into a world of uncertainties. A world where everything seems out of control and hence scary. When we ourselves feel on the edge how do we make our children and students feel better?

When change feels like the new normal, gaining tolerance towards it and modelling a behaviour which reflects realistic ways to handle the uncertainty will be the right message to give our children and students. Catastrophizing has never really helped in dealing with anxiety and showing our children that we should be able to realistically assess the threat and not overreact could be a way to make them feel more in control.

One way could be to help children express themselves and talk to them about the current situation, share facts in a way in which they will understand. I have a three-year-old toddler who expresses her frustration now and then about schools not opening and her inability to play with other children. I have to explain to her in an extremely simplified manner that the Corona bug has been acting naughty and has forced schools to shut down, that they will reopen when things get better.

Other ways could be to reassure our children and students that they are safe, letting them know it is ok if they feel upset, sharing with them how we deal with our own stress so that they can learn how to cope. Having conversations with our students/children around ways we have shown resiliency will help model what being resilient can look like.

It is also important to limit exposure to news coverage, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand. Having a regular routine and a structured day can also help them be productively engaged.

Finally, as caregivers it is also important for us to take care of our own mental and physical needs, taking breaks, getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and eating well and connecting with our friends and family members.

References
• Adler, A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Using Well-being for Public Policy: Theory, Measurement, and Recommendations. International Journal of Well-being, 6(1), 1-35. doi:10.5502/ijw.v6i1.1
• Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
• Seligman, M. E. P., Adler, A. (2018). Positive Education. In J. F. Helliwell, R. Layard, & J. Sachs (Eds.), Global Happiness Policy Report: 2018. (Pp. 52 – 73). Global Happiness Council.

The author has been teaching courses in psychology at the School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University for the last seven years. She has been involved in designing and implementing positive mental health programs in college. She is a licensed clinical psychologist from NIMHANS and has been working in this field for almost 12 years now. She can be reached at [email protected].

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