Supporting every teacher: teenage student wellbeing

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Younger people are especially vulnerable to issues with wellbeing during this current global pandemic. Kate Brierton, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, tells us more about teenage student wellbeing, and how teachers can help.

The main development tasks of the teenage to young adult stages of life are to become independent from their family of origin and discover their individual identities, talents and motivations. They achieve this by spending less time with family and more time with their peer group. They build intimate relationships with partners outside the family, exploring the world and trying new activities. All of these important tasks have been either prohibited or severely curtailed in the past few months during lockdown and social distancing. This is having a huge effect on young people across the world.

How you can help…

  • Accept and validate any feelings or emotional responses that the young people in your class may have. There is no right or wrong way to feel in response to these unprecedented times.
  • Show empathy for the unique challenges facing your students, both at school and in their personal lives.
  • If you feel comfortable, share a little about your own experiences and challenges during this time. Appropriate levels of self-disclosure can strengthen relationships.

Sources of emotional distress

The young people in your care will have spent many weeks socially isolated from their friends and intimate partners. Messaging and video calling are helpful, but are not as validating or comforting as the physical presence of others. In some young people, the loss of contact with their peer group and partners will cause a grief-like reaction. They may also have lost family members due to COVID-19.  Grief is a mix of strong emotions, such as loneliness, sadness and anger. Under these circumstances, it may lead to more serious issues with wellbeing, like an episode of major depression.

In addition to this, living in close proximity to stressed, frustrated or withdrawn parents can be very difficult, as young people tend to easily absorb stress from their parents. The uncertainty around the whole situation, both nationally and internationally, is also anxiety-provoking. They will be concerned about whether or not examinations will go ahead, when the schools and colleges are likely to re-open and how the change in education will affect their future. The fact that the young people do not have any control over these issues makes it even more stressful for them.

How you can help…

  • Stay connected as much as possible to your students. Remember that a video call is more beneficial than a phone call. A video clip of you is more supportive than an email.
  • Be aware that psychological disorders like depression and anxiety are often mistaken for normal teenage behaviour (so-called teenage “angst”). Regularly check-in with your students to find out how they are feeling and coping. Refer for online support where possible.
  • Give the students a sense of control and choice when you can.
  • Communicate clearly and promptly – even if you don’t know when their exams are going to be, or when the schools will reopen. Communicate this regularly until you have a more definite answer. Anxious students will imagine the worst scenario if there is a gap in communication.
  • Encourage students to look after their physical wellbeing by eating healthily, sleeping in a regular pattern and taking some exercise when permitted, preferably outside.

A struggle with motivation

I am working with several young people at the moment in my online clinic and they are all struggling to find the motivation to complete work at home. This isn’t necessarily that they are finding the work academically too challenging, but they can’t find the motivation to complete it. They feel overwhelmed by long lists of assignments sent to them and find it difficult to know where to start. Some have difficulties planning revision for exams, or find studying unstimulating without the company of their peers to discuss topics and assignments. This is not their fault – they are not being lazy or careless. It is due to the changes in their life and environment and the brain taking time to adapt to their new, slower pace of life. It may also be a sign that they are seriously struggling with their mental health. Demotivation is a frequent symptom of low mood and depression.

How you can help…

  • Help the students to structure their days by sending home a sample timetable for the week.
  • Reduce the number of hours of study in a week and prioritise the most important topics that you would like them to cover. Independent study is more tiring for most students than traditional classes.
  • Set low minimum expectations. Most students will be able to complete the work set and feel a sense of achievement, but offer extra optional challenges to stimulate the motivated students further.
  • Break assignments and topics down into small chunks and set them a few at a time or in different folders, to prevent the students from feeling overwhelmed.
  • Facilitate the students communicating together online in small groups, where possible.
  • Reward the students for engaging with any work, no matter how small. Try to avoid any criticism if they are struggling. Instead, ask how they are coping and how you can help them.

We are stronger together

Finally, remind your students that we are all stronger and more adaptable than we think we are. Talk about their future in a confident positive way. Highlight the many positive changes that may come about during this time, like benefits for the environment and closer family relationships. Let them know that you are by their side, if not in physical presence, then most definitely in spirit.

Kate is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist at Compassionate Cambridge and Wellbeing & Special Educational Needs Governor at Impington Village College, UK. She presents and blogs for Cambridge University Press on compassion and wellbeing in education. Would you like more tips on how to stay mentally healthy during times of change? Try reading Kate’s previous post: 3 mindfulness tips for teachers.
If you would like to read more blog articles from the Supporting Every Teacher series, click here