The costs of COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures on children’s health, well-being and learning has been devastating. 

Everyone has been affected by the pandemic, but for some children and adolescents, lockdowns and school closures have meant being subjected to violence, abuse and neglect at home. 

For others, increased time online, particularly unsupervised time for younger children, may have heightened the risk of being exposed to harmful content, cyberbullying and online sexual abuse and exploitation. 

As your students return to school, you might be the first trusted adult they have encountered outside their home since COVID-19 containment measures started. You may be the first person to spot if something is wrong. 

To help you provide your students with a safe and supportive learning environment, here are some ways to support your student’s well-being.

Did you know? During times of stress and crisis, children observe adults’ behaviours and emotions for cues on how to manage their own.

Emotional check-ins

Returning to school can be an emotionally trying time for everyone and children can be greatly impacted in a number of ways.

Conduct routine emotional check-ins with your students. To check-in emotionally is to ask children “how they are” in a direct or indirect way. One method is to ask children “What colour do you feel today?” Ask children to illustrate how they feel using colours to represent their feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, etc., and let them share how they feel with the rest of the classroom. You could also ask your students to draw or paint a picture. Ask them to tell you more about the picture, what they have drawn, or why they used a specific colour, for example.

Identifying signs of distress

Children have different reactions to adverse events in their environment. Culture influences the ways in which we express emotions. In some cultures, for example, it is not appropriate to show strong emotions like crying loudly, while in others it is widely accepted. Based on the culture you work in, be alert for signs that children are not doing well.

Some common reactions to stress in children of all ages can include:

  • Tiredness
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stomachache
  • Dizziness
  • Shaking
  • Headaches
  • General aches
  • Withdrawal
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability 
  • Feeling confused
  • Increasingly fearful

Please note, these may also be signs of physical illness, so it is advisable the child sees a doctor to make sure there is no underlying physical cause.

Activities to reduce stress and support student well-being

These activities can be done with students in order to help reduce stress, support well-being and provide them with positive coping strategies. These activities are also beneficial for you, and you and your students can do them together.

Belly breathing

Often when we are stressed our breathing becomes shallow, high in our chests, and we forget to breathe deeply into our bellies, or abdomens. Abdominal breathing is very calming and helps us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs.

Instructions for students

  • Place your hand on your stomach
  • Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 second breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • With children you can explain that when they inhale, they are blowing up their tummy softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.

My special place

Sometimes the world around us can be overwhelming. By taking a moment to imagine being somewhere calm, students can feel less stressed. Here’s an activity to help your students imagine such a place.

Instructions for students

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, close your eyes and relax
  • Take several deep slow breaths in through your nose and into your belly. Breathe out through your mouth
  • Keep breathing slowly and softly. Gentle long inhales then gentle long exhales
  • Listen and follow the story in your mind and imagine being in the story:

“Imagine that you are standing on a white sandy beach. It’s early in the morning, and everything is quiet. The sun is rising slowly, and you can feel the warm light on your face and your body. You are feeling happy and peaceful. The sand beneath your bare feet is soft and warm. A light breeze strokes your face. The sky is blue and open, and birds are flying and singing above. This place is safe, and you can relax here. This is a place you can always come back to, which is always there, inside your heart. You can visit whenever you want. Now, very gradually, begin to notice your breathing again – the gentle rhythm of inhales and exhales. Notice the feeling of the air on your skin. Very softly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes. Inhale and take a big stretch. Exhale deeply. When you are ready, open your eyes.”

Letter writing

Many of your students may have been unable to see some of their friends or family members during the pandemic. Writing a letter can help them celebrate the relationship and communicate with that person even if they are not physically present.

Instructions for students

  • Ask children to write a letter or draw a picture for a loved one they have not seen in a long time
  • What you would like to say to them if they were sitting with you today?
  • What do you love about them?
  • What do you appreciate?
  • What memories about them make you smile?

Credit: UNICEF

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