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Learners need emotional support more than ever

By Jenny Coetzee and Angelica Ouya | February 6th 2021
Children at Mama Ngina Children's Home in Nairobi prepare to depart for boarding school in Bungoma. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

As learners settle in their new school routines following the disruptions of 2020, extra care must be taken to ensure they are not just continuing with their educational journeys, but that they also receive support for their mental and emotional well being, education experts say.

It has been wonderful to welcome our students back. The energy is palpable and the excitement clear. However, we are aware of the fact that 2020 took its toll on everyone, not least schoolchildren, and that they return after a year that for many would have been traumatic, frustrating, lonely and isolating.

The past year has had a significant impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of most people, and young children have not escaped the impact of Covid-19 and the curfews in this regard.

A September report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that Covid-19 affected children directly and indirectly. Beyond them or their loved ones getting sick, their social, emotional and mental well-being has been impacted.

Listed as contributing factors to this impact were changed routines, breaks in continuity of learning, breaks in continuity of healthcare, significant life events that were missed and loss of safety and security. Simply put, the students we said goodbye to last year when schools closed, are not the same ones who recently returned to us. They were faced with unprecedented upheaval and uncertainty for months on end, and some even the loss of loved ones. These experiences have, to varying degrees, impacted on their mental and emotional wellbeing.

It should not be business as usual for the time being. We as educators, need to be aware that on top of the demands of providing the highest quality of academic excellence, we should also be cognisant that our students may require increased levels of compassion, support and empathy until we have settled into our new routines under what remains unusual circumstances, which include social distancing and wearing of masks.

In the ADvTECH group of schools, which includes Crawford International School and Makini, we have embraced pastoral care in education as a way of ensuring children are safe, engaged and able to fulfil their potential.

We cannot expect things to pick up where they left off 11 months ago and we as educators must aim to be more empathetic and flexible. Returning to the new normal while we are still dealing with the challenge of Covid-19 will take time.

It is also important to remember that there will be gaps in learning, because some students could continue online, while some could not. While we are phasing in, expectations must be tempered and education needs to happen on more fronts than purely academic.

As educators, we have an important role to play during this time of transition to help our students build their resilience and growth mindsets.

It is heartening to see how enthusiastic students and their families, as well as educators, are about the return to physical school. Even if things remain a little strange, getting back into a routine provides a glimmer of light that life may slowly be returning to normal. And with our schools now open again, it is almost as if there is some energy being generated again that will be to the benefit of the whole nation.

While the past year came with unprecedented challenges, it has also led to some remarkable stories of resilience and growth under difficult circumstances. 2020 showed that when one is under pressure, you should adapt and do things differently.

- Coetzee is the managing director of Crawford International School Kenya while Ouya is the education director at Makini Group of Schools

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