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GIVING STUDENTS TIME FOR RECOVERY AND LEARNING

"Over the following years, our focus shouldn’t be to rapidly return schools to the old ‘normal’ but to provide students with adequate time and support to enjoy learning and retain knowledge and skills."

In an article published by a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne last week, prioritising social and emotional learning programs in primary and secondary schools will help students manage any ongoing emotional impacts of the trauma and learning in the shadow of the global pandemic of Covid-19.

This is an abridged version of the article for your consideration.

Since early 2020, Australia’s bushfires and the pandemic have rapidly altered our ways of living and learning. As time goes on, the one sure thing is unpredictability, requiring flexibility and constant adjustments.

It isn’t helpful to catastrophise, and evidence tells us that students can generally cope with school closures under various dramatic circumstances.

On the other hand, there are also risks associated with being too complacent and failing to take this opportunity to learn from adversity. The cumulative impacts of mass emergency events can increase the risk of poor mental healthand development, depending on the severity of the experience, age, personality differences and family circumstances.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR CHILDREN’S WELLBEING AND LEARNING?

Over the past two years, many Victorian children have been exposed to multiple natural disasters such as bushfires, drought, floods, as well as repeated and prolonged lockdowns due to COVID-19, the consequences of which might not be apparent until years down the track.

SUPPORTING SCHOOLS TO SUPPORT STUDENTS

A 2020 report noted that schools could significantly contribute to students’ capacity to cope with mass emergency events when they provide social and emotional learning programs.

It is important to emphasise that the majority of both students and staff will show resiliencein the long run to these adverse experiences. However, a significant minority will be at increased risk of prolonged psychological distress or developing a mental health disorder.

Supporting psychosocial recovery in children and adults following a disaster includes providing low-level support immediately post-event that encourages and empowers the person to utilise social support and resilience in their recovery journey. Over time, people who continue to show signs of distress or a mental health disorder will be directed to increasingly targeted and more intensive interventions.

There is increasingly strong evidence of positive impacts from school-based programs that deliver the three levels of care in a stepped care program, namely:

1) Universal psychosocial support via the provision of social and emotional learning

2) Targeted skills training in stress management and emotional regulation techniques

3) Evidence-based treatment for a post traumatic mental health disorder

While the Australian government has recognised the need for significant investment in student wellbeing in schools, there is an additional element we all need to consider, and that is time.

SPACE TO ADJUST AND RECOVER

Trauma recovery takes time and emotional energy. So, let’s assume the radical step of requiring less from our teachers and students in terms of testing, academic targets and progress, not more so that they can accommodate the extra demands on them practically, mentally and emotionally.

This might include providing flexibility or taking a slowed down and prioritised approach to curriculum delivery for a nominated period, allowing for learning consolidation in crucial areas before progressing with new units. This would help to address learning retention difficulties that can often be present in students affected by trauma.

There should also be a prioritising of social and emotional learning programs in both primary and secondary schools in the recovery period to help students manage any ongoing emotional impacts of the traumatic event.

Currently, the critical barrier to optimal uptake of a comprehensive social and emotional learning program has been competing pressures concerning the crowded academic curriculum.

This is a time to reduce this pressure, so we can prioritise wellbeing as well as learning.

To this end, learning and wellbeing programs should include:

  • facilitating access to support services [inside] and outside of the school,
  • Expanding peer ‘buddy’ or ‘mentoring’ support between students would also help facilitate meaningful social support that is vital to reduce the risk of developing a mental health disorder.
  • A reduction in testing and monitoring will also be necessary because testing can increase anxiety and reduce the time available for support and learning.
  • Increasing support for teachers, including reducing their workload, is also needed to help them manage the multiple demands placed on them following disasters that are often beyond their experience and training scope.

Wellbeing isn’t just a crucial additional consideration in school communities. It is a central component of the capacity to learn well and to teach well. Unrealistic efforts to fast track the return to academic targets may well undermine students’ sense of their abilities and power to understand and undermine teacher morale concerning the contribution of their sustained efforts. We suggest that the solution over the next few years isn’t to speed up efforts to return to the old ‘normal’, but rather to slow down enough to respond effectively to the presenting challenges. This will include providing adequate time and support to restore psychosocial health so that students can engage with their peers and teachers, enjoy learning and retain their knowledge and skills.

If we have all learnt anything over the past 18 months, it is that change is possible.

Yours in kindness & optimism,

DONNA NAIRN
Director of Counselling

Expanded version:

https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/giving-students-time-for-recovery-and-learning

Further reading:

https://www.maggiedent.com/blog/schools-key-to-our-kids-recovery-why-the-3-cs-count-before-grades/?fbclid=IwAR