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Time for compassion towards students

by Vijay Garg
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Since schools closed, students have been through a lot of changes. Not only have they aged, they have become different people, having lived through a pandemic at such a young age. So, what should schools expect when children return, and how can they prepare to support their emotional adjustment and safeguard their development beyond academic achievement?
As a society, we have always struggled to accept that school is about more than academic achievement. School is where children make friends, encounter bullies, face anxieties, experiment with identities, have secret adventures, live independent lives, and learn who they are away from their parents. If their home environment is unstable for any reason, they have the chance to live a different life where they can feel like they have a higher degree of freedom and control. That this is essential to their psychosocial development is beyond debate.
Being home for the larger part of two years has denied them these necessary developmental opportunities. Undoubtedly, children will have missed their friends, and the routine of going to school can have induced grief and listlessness. Beyond this, though, several children will have experienced Covid-induced health anxieties, the loss of loved ones, varying textures of violence, financial crises and several other issues.
The symptom grabbing everyone’s attention seems to be an increase in screen time. Less attention has been paid to “nuisance” symptoms such as disrupted sleep or eating patterns, lack of focus and motivation to study, sullen behaviour and temper tantrums. Older children have been taken to doctors for anything from mild mood and anxiety disorders to instances of addiction and self-harm. Despite our intention to support our children, it seems we have instead decided to “manage” them and place the burden of coping — academically and emotionally — on them alone. It is one of the great privileges of adulthood to develop an amnesia about how we would have liked to be treated when we were children and adolescents.
Children do not always communicate directly, and often go unheard when they try. Nor do they have (read: are not given) an emotional vocabulary to explain the complexity of emotions they might be going through (neither do adults, if I’m being honest). Instead, they withdraw, get angry, stop studying or lose focus. Our instinct, unthinkingly, is to respond by telling them to engage, stop feeling angry, study harder and focus more. Unsurprisingly, such advice never works. These are expressions of their feelings. Withdrawing into their phones, for instance, can well be an expression of loneliness, despair and a feeling of being unmoored. Children are alive to everything around them. Holding it inside, trying to make sense of it, can be a lot to carry.
Shutting down — receding into technology — might be a protective response that offers stimulation and engagement on their terms. Other responses to this felt helplessness, no less extreme, could be addictions of various kinds and attempts at self-harm.
It is, therefore, unreasonable to expect children to return to “normal” just by virtue of them attending school again. Students may struggle to reassimilate with friends, while others may not know how to study in a classroom. Schools need to be prepared for hundreds of students, each carrying the burden of the past two years, coming together under one roof. This is a moment to think beyond labelling students as those “falling behind” or “depressed” or exhibiting “conduct disorders” and sending them for behavioural interventions or calling their parents to reprimand them. It is an opportunity to move from a punitive to a compassionate, supportive stance. The aim, now, is not to graduate them from one class to the next but to help them mourn what was lost, recover and feel safe again.

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