Student wellbeing: Understanding different COVID-19 experiences

It almost seems a cliché to state that the first half of 2020 has been unprecedented. Yet the reality of this statement is all around us. As I write these words, the world is collectively reeling from the devastating impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

We are indeed all involved in this crisis together; and certainly, it is only through collective effort that the world will move forward well. Yet, despite our commonality, we are certainly not all involved in 2020 in the same way. Nor are we all being impacted in equal or equivalent measures. As educators, is vital that we do not lose sight of the unique differences, inequalities and inequities that have come to light during this crisis.

Acknowledging students' different experiences

The impact and devastation, and even the positive outcomes of this time, have been very different for each of us. We need to acknowledge, accept and support difference to experience collective benefit. This truth also pervades in school communities and has been brought loudly to the fore during the past few months.

The following quote from teacher Anna Partridge speaks volumes:

‘…while teaching my classes online, some students who struggled in class have thrived, submitted their work on time and to a good quality. Others are really missing the collaboration in class and bouncing ideas off others. Some are loving the unstructured day and being home with families, and yet others are struggling with the home environment and relationships are strained.'

Anna is a Year 7 Humanities teacher and Pastoral Advisor at an Australian school. The school, like most schools around the world, recently experienced a rapid, unplanned move to home learning. In her words, Anna acknowledges the very different experiences of this chaotic social experiment for her students.

To a large degree, students' experiences of home learning reflect their relationship with their home context and with their absent school context. Certainly, many children have missed friends and teachers during their enforced physical isolation at home. Others have thrived with less social complexity in their lives. Some students will have spent time in comfortable homes with adequate space, access to outdoors, and positive family relationships. Others have found themselves in close contact with stressed and struggling parents, or no parents at all; with minimal space and/or minimal resources. The context of every education environment counts, be it at school, or at home.

The importance of relationships – at any time

It is interesting to note that there is almost unanimous agreement that if young people have been at home with struggling parents and strained relationships, their capacity to learn will have been compromised. I can't help but reflect on why we do not make clearer assertions concerning the impact of peer and teacher relationships in the ‘normal' world of face-to-face school life?

Absolutely, schools recognise the importance of relationships and promote respectful, kind and compassionate behaviour. But do we do enough to establish trust and social stability in schools? Do we do enough to vary teaching and learning options and expectations when students are struggling socially?

Young people need to feel socially and emotionally safe before they can engage with their learning and do their best academically. We need to ensure we move gently around those struggling with a lack of positive relationships or the impact of negative ones.

Autonomy, agency, choice and control

There is also a widely held acknowledgement of the recent changes in autonomy many of us have experienced in recent months. It is understandable that so many of us have become frustrated, disengaged and discontent with a loss of choice and control in our lives. Again, let's ensure we take note of our heightened understanding of the importance of autonomy, agency, choice and control during this time. It can be hard to be motivated, to be hopeful, and to be cheery, when yet another day of restrictions arrives.

Be it during COVID-lockdown or daily school life in some preferred world, we need to have autonomy and agency if we are to be connected to life. And it is only when we experience a connection to our lives that we can truly thrive. Some children have felt a loss of autonomy at home as their choices have become more limited. Others have experienced greater freedom to work more on their own terms, in their own space. As schools return to face-to-face teaching and learning, we need to ensure we provide opportunity for autonomy, agency, choice and control for everyone, every day.

Context really matters. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci's Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has repeatedly shown that we all have the same core needs for relationships, autonomy and a sense of competency. Yet we are all unique beings with different contextual experiences and different histories. As such, we interact with the context around us in a multitude of ways.

In school communities we are indeed ‘all in this together' however, that does not mean one context fits all. Our unique characters and experiences require contexts to be flexible and varied if they are to be equitable and supportive for all.

Let's ensure we take note of all that we have lost and found over the past few months. These reflections on our experiences can help us all to better understand what really matters to us personally, and collectively. Moreover, let's ensure we do not fail to learn from this vast chaotic experiment in our haste to return to some semblance of ‘normality'.

As a leader, how do you develop a climate of trust and stability in your school? As a teacher, what strategies are you employing to help students feel socially and emotionally safe in the classroom?

Dr Helen Street notes: ‘As schools return to face-to-face teaching and learning, we need to ensure we provide opportunity for autonomy, agency, choice and control for everyone, every day.’ Think about how you can integrate these opportunities into your own practice on a daily basis.