Since early 2020, Australia’s bushfires and then the pandemic have rapidly altered our ways of living and learning. As time goes on, the one thing that is certain is unpredictability, requiring flexibility and constant adjustments.
It isn’t helpful to catastrophise. As Professor John Hattie from Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne pointed out in 2020, evidence tells us that students can generally cope with school closures under various dramatic circumstances.
On the other hand, there are also risks associated with being too complacent and failing to take this opportunity to learn from adversity. The cumulative impacts of mass emergency events can increase the risk of poor mental health and development, depending on factors such as the severity of the experience, age, personality differences and family circumstances.
What does this mean for our children’s wellbeing and learning?
Over the past two years, many Victorian children have been exposed to multiple natural disasters as well as repeated and prolonged lockdowns due to COVID-19. International studies looking at the impact of quarantine on children and youth identify a range of physical and psychological impacts, the consequences of which might not be apparent until years down the track.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in its report on the COVID-19 impact on youth stated that “nearly half of the national school student population are vulnerable to negative impacts from learning at home, due to their age, social disadvantage, specific needs (including physical or psychological needs or language support) or family employment context”.
Previous research we conducted with colleagues, following the schools affected by the Black Saturday bushfires, showed that up to four years later many students weren’t progressing as expected in reading and maths compared to their peers. The patterns of lower academic scores were still evident up to eight years later.
Supporting schools to support students
A 2020 report noted that schools can make a major contribution to students’ capacity to cope with mass emergency events when they provide social and emotional learning programs.
It is important to emphasise that the majority of both students and staff will show resilience in the long run to these adverse experiences. However, a significant minority will be at increased risk of prolonged psychological distress and/or the development of a mental health disorder.
We have previously advocated for a range of additional supports for school communities adversely impacted by disaster, including increased administrative support for school staff, the provision of social and emotional learning programs for students, professional trauma support post-disaster, and additional learning support for students.
A Stepped Care approach is recommended for supporting psychosocial recovery in children and adults following a disaster. This includes providing low-level support immediately post-event that encourages and empowers the person to utilise social supports and their own resilience in their recovery journey. Over time, people who continue to show signs of distress and/or a mental health disorder will be directed to increasingly targeted and more intensive interventions.
There is increasingly strong evidence of positive impacts from school-based programs that deliver the three levels of care in a stepped care program, namely:
1) Universal psychosocial support via the provision of social and emotional learning
2) Targeted skills training in stress management and emotional regulation techniques
3) Evidence-based treatment for a posttraumatic mental health disorder
The Australian government has recognised that social and emotional learning can help our kids cope, with significant investment in student wellbeing in schools, but there is an additional element we all need to consider and that is time.
Space to adjust and recover
Trauma recovery takes time and emotional energy.
So, let’s take the radical step of requiring less from our teachers and students in terms of testing, academic targets and progress, not more, so that they can accommodate the extra demands on them practically, mentally and emotionally.
What changes could this involve? Flexibility around the age of school entry would help to ensure children are developmentally ready to begin attending school. Developmental stages such as toileting can be delayed if children have been affected by trauma.
A department-led approach that promotes responsive innovations in curriculum and study designs should be supported. The objective would be to allow students the space to adjust and ‘manage’ their recovery without falling behind academically.
In primary schools, this might include providing flexibility or taking a slowed down and prioritised approach to curriculum delivery for a nominated period, allowing for learning consolidation in key areas before progressing with new units. This would help to address learning retention difficulties that can often be present in students affected by trauma.
There should also be a prioritising of social and emotional learning programs in both primary and secondary schools in the recovery period to help students manage any ongoing emotional impacts of the traumatic event.
A comprehensive open-access social and emotional learning program we developed is an example of support programs being provided by the Department of Education Victoria, providing guidance from Foundation through to Years 11-12.
Currently, the key barrier to its optimal uptake has been competing pressures in relation to the crowded academic curriculum. This is a time to reduce this pressure, so we can prioritise wellbeing as well as learning.
As noted, the provision of additional learning and wellbeing programs in schools to support students who experience ongoing emotional dysregulation and reduced learning capacity should be a priority.
This should also include facilitating access to support services outside of the school, particularly for students with low school attendance. Expanding the use of peer ‘buddy’ or ‘mentoring’ support between students would also help to facilitate meaningful social support that is vital to reduce the risk of developing a mental health disorder.
A reduction in testing and monitoring will also be important because testing itself can increase anxiety and reduce the time available for support and learning. Post-disaster test anxiety has been negatively associated with academic achievement.
Increasing support for teachers, including reducing their workload is also needed to help them manage the multiple demands placed on them following disasters that are often beyond the scope of their experience and training.
Wellbeing isn’t just an important additional consideration in school communities, it is a central component of the capacity to learn well and to teach well. Unrealistic efforts to fast track the return to academic targets may well undermine students’ sense of their own abilities and their capacity to learn and undermine teacher morale in relation to the contribution of their sustained efforts.
We suggest that the solution over the next few years isn’t to speed up efforts to return to the old ‘normal’, but rather to slow down enough to respond effectively to the presenting challenges.
This will include providing adequate time and support to restore psychosocial health so that students have the capacity to engage with their peers and teachers, to enjoy learning and retain their knowledge and skills.
Changes will be needed in education policies, teacher reporting requirements and family expectations, as well as increasing support to teachers to manage the multiple demands placed on them following disasters.
If we have all learnt anything over the past 18 months, it is that change is possible. Whole populations are currently learning how to better understand the relationship between individual actions and public health.
This is a learning that is also necessary to support future engagement in climate care, which itself is needed to contribute towards preventing the prevalence and severity of forthcoming natural disasters, which in turn, will challenge learning and wellbeing.
If we invest now in supporting the capacity of schools and teachers to provide responsive wellbeing education and to prioritise support for learning in times of change, we will have learnt from these emergencies, and be better able to contribute this learning to future students.
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