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A new role for teachers, as students return to school

As schools slowly open up post-pandemic, teachers notice behavioural changes in children; here's how they’re coping, and helping

Classroom Scene, 1946, by William H. Johnson. 
Classroom Scene, 1946, by William H. Johnson.  (Representational image only, sourced from WikiArt)

Eighteen months after her school re-opened like most others in the country, Shivani Kapoor, principal of Euro International, Jodhpur, went to one of the junior classes to ask how they were doing after this long break of physical classes. “I wanted to understand how children were coping, being back to school. What I found out was that many children were anxious and had developed low self-esteem. Two children started crying in front of the class,” Kapoor says.

Kapoor’s class of children is not an exception.

In many other schools, as children return to their classrooms after remaining home-bound for the last nearly two years during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are noticing behavioural changes in their students. “Class teachers have noticed loss of interest in some children: their classwork or homework is often unfinished, they are not interested in class, or find it difficult to focus,” says Neha Saxena, counsellor at Air Force School, Allahabad.

As the world battled COVID-19, children have had to restrict themselves, even as they witnessed loss, suffering, and grief from close quarters. “Some students are showing signs of insecurity, and naturally so, because they have suffered immense loss during this Covid period. At least four of my students have either lost a parent or a grandparent and are still coping with that loss,” Saxena said.

As businesses suffered losses during the lockdown period, children witnessed their parents go through job losses and financial difficulties. To go out on their own, after a long period of navigating such uncertainty, can be overwhelming for some children, say counsellors.

An unwillingness to write is another common issue that most parents of primary school children are facing now. This is one area which is indicative of not just the problem of ‘losing practice because of virtual class’ but of something bigger.

Nancy Close, assistant professor, Child Study Centre at the Yale School of Medicine, in an interview with the UNICEF said that cases of children showing regressive behaviour—a temporary step back in development—during the COVID-19 period have become very common. “Even as adults we regress when our stress levels increase, or we experience changes and transitions,” Close said, “So it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a developmental phenomenon from childhood to adulthood.” Regressive behaviour in this context could mean difficulty in exhibiting skills that a child had mastered earlier, like toilet training and sleeping. It could also mean an inability to manage feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety. This can be true for children of different age groups, from toddlers to university students.

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Kapoor for instance has found that abusive words have found their way into conversations among children as young as in class 5. “Some children are finding it difficult to mix with others; a teacher told me that a child has unusually been talking with her eyes lowered. In another session with students of class 5-6, when I asked them to rate themselves on how good they were doing overall, some gave themselves a heartbreaking 4,” she says.

For schools, these are uncharted waters. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) launched tele-counselling and a mobile app for students and parents keeping their mental health in mind during the pandemic. he focus has primarily, however, been on the classes close to board exams— classes 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Schools, and particularly class teachers, have devised their own ways to help the rest of the children cope, while balancing academic schedules. Saxena’s school for instance has been having condolence ceremonies for students who have lost a family member, and has been teaching other children ways to express empathy towards such a child. Kapoor’s school organised a special Dusshera in which children wrote all the abusive or hurtful words said to them on pieces of paper and burnt them, and has written positive affirmations in all the classrooms.

In addition to all this, one of the most common and overarching thoughts that schools are voicing at this point is a need to counsel parents. “Parents are the primary caregivers and in all the parent-teacher meetings we’ve had, we have tried to tell them this: please don’t pressurise your child,” Saxena says . Children are just about coping with getting back to their school schedules., Parental expectations to excel is adding to their stress, say teachers. Romila Sinha, a private school teacher in Assam for instance said that parental “over-involvement” has been detrimental for children. “There have been times I have had to intervene during an online class as parents openly rebuked their children, or even raised their hand, if[their child] could not answer a question,” Sinha says.

Kapoor says that this is the reason teachers and schools are counselling parents too. While “children have had behavioural changes, parents have changed too; parents need to be more patient,” she says. “Children often emulate what their caregivers do,” Close, in her interview with UNICEF, said, adding that therefore, “parents need to find support around to manage their own stress as this can ultimately help their children’s well-being.”

In the Army Public School, Dehradun, there have been regular sessions between counsellors and parents—and separate ones with students and staff—on coping strategies. There have been sessions on themes like, ‘Know your child better’ for parents of classes 1-5; ‘I am a teen’ for parents of class 8; ‘Parental involvement - together we make a difference’ for parents of classes 1 and 2. For children under the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Programme, there have been separate sessions, like ‘Feel, Deal, and Heal’, ‘In my Heart’, and ‘Be the Boss of Your Anger’. Teachers have had similar sessions too. “There are a lot of challenges—learning gaps, stress because of the pandemic—that children and parents are facing, which is why we have been having these sessions and have invited experts,” a senior official of the school says.

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Through all of this, however, teachers are confident that “children will adapt”. But it is also pertinent to remember that there is another group of children who are returning to school after having almost completely lost touch with education — those who have had no access to the internet or a smartphone to attend online classes. A UNICEF report has said that only 8.5 per cent students in India have access to the internet. For the rest of these children, returning to school therefore, means an even wider learning gap perhaps, that would require support from all quarters.

Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur.

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