It is world events that shape generations and we still do not know for certain what exactly will be the long-term fallout of Covid-19 on school children who were suddenly confined to their homes. We may not know for many years the related data and analysis. But collectively, this startling change in the way they lived counts for a large-scale human trauma. These formative experiences are certain to shape their views of the world. This generation will evolve certain characteristics that we do not yet know.
Under the circumstances, what can parents and teachers do to help them prepare for the uncertainty ahead? What are the potential areas where research, reorientation and redesigning will be needed to ease their eventual entry into the new real world?
Take skill development. For the past few months, the options that have been exercised by schools and educational institutions are bound to have long-term consequences. Gen Z’s (born between 1996 and 2015) training schedule has been disrupted in multiple ways. In most cases, the curriculum had to be quickly converted to online formats by amateurs in this field. Direct instructions were discarded for the most part and students and parents worked on independent projects, bolstered by digital resources. Learning struggled to happen at home amidst families and pets in spaces that call for a particular preparation. In most cases, grades were abandoned in favour of pass or fail status. Tests became a casualty and deadlines became rubber bands, stretching away merrily.
What has this loss of structure done to the children? Has it disoriented them, causing confusion and conflict? Does it mean that adults will need to exercise greater patience and be prepared to mentor and support in stronger ways? Have reorientation programs been conceived to ease their transition back to regular school when that happens? A comprehensive return would ideally involve rethinking the usual focus on academics, offering instead mentorship in making sense of their most recent experiences.
Remote learning arrangements may endure in the form of modified timetables. There have been changes in age and gender demographics. Technological improvements and the global nature of human engagement had begun to shout flexibility even before Covid-19 struck. This culture of fluidity is sure to demand new shifts and learning opportunities. Inter-generational relationships will need to be stronger than ever before; teachers will stand to benefit from being open to reverse mentoring, schools will need to devote time and resources to building a stronger multi-generational culture.
The second area that continues to create a buzz is stress management. The baseline for school students today is already higher than the generations before and research is clear that childhood exposure to sustained stress will impact mental and social development. Have schools put into place empathetic plans to assist students with their mental health struggles? The most effective stress management program is one that functions at multiple levels, home, classroom and organizational. And of these, the most sustainable results are likely to come from organizational policies.
When the classroom reopens, the young lives will resume with some form of anxiety and ambivalence. Open conversations, supportive environments, pro-active interventions will likely keep the odd minor challenge from becoming a life crisis. It will be important to remind oneself constantly of the large-scale interruption the young have experienced in all that motivated and fulfilled them earlier. The stakeholders involved will also need greater stocks of emotional intelligence than pre-pandemic. And we can no longer afford to await this skill some more years down the road ahead. The future we are looking at now will not have as much use for hard training as it will for an emotional equipment. Tomorrow’s workforce, the educators, professionals and innovators will need psychological robustness and wholesomeness most of all.
What is the current rate of psychopathology of Indian teens? Do we know? Teens for instance, in the United States exhibit stress edging past that of adults. One meta-analysis (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S027273580900141X) says that their rate of psychopathology is five times that of 75 years ago. Lowered school achievement, unwanted pregnancy, binge drinking, use of marijuana, school violence, obesity, foggy misery, STDs…there is an overwhelming anxiety and at times acute depression during the school years. Could these be symptomatic of a complete lack of investment in the training of children’s “non-cognitive” skills? Do our young have the motivation, the ability to persevere and the degree of self-control that is needed to take the economy and well-being of the race forward?
Feelings matter at home and at work. Emotion science, positive psychology and mindfulness curricula have begun to address the management of feelings. It is also called the art of managing one’s micro-expressions, the frown and the smile! The ability to analyze and selectively choose emotions is related to happier outcomes in children as early as pre-school. The real benefits include deeper friendships, stronger attachments with teachers and parents, smarter conflict management, sharper academic scores and non-threatening leadership skills.
There is growing evidence by now to establish that SEL programs are effective and sorely needed in schools. The policies and funds needed however are crushingly slow in coming. How then do we begin to fund the teachers’ SEL training? There are agencies that offer evidence-based SEL programming that should make support for the education of emotions easier. Nothing less than an emotional revolution is the need of the hour today. We are already a quarter way into the new century.
Has there been any dialogue in schools with the students? Do we know how they feel in the school, how different is it from what they would like to feel and what can be done to bridge the gap? It ought to be done anonymously if needed but there is a pressing case to get them to share ideas with business leaders, educators, policymakers so that the learning environments can be upgraded with a sense of urgency.
Social and emotional skills are not ‘soft’ but the ‘hardest’ we will need beginning now. A compassionate vigilance, keener empathy and a resilient adaptability will be the features of the next generation of leaders. This generation has been tested young and deserves all the support to herald the evolution of the human race they look destined to lead, God help them.
The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational empathy with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making and feature journalism. She can be reached at
[email protected] and https://neerjasingh.com.