Is Anyone Listening?

By Br Solomon Morris

Principals, Teachers, Parents, Caregivers and other stakeholders do read this article about children & their lives during the on-going pandemic.
Two fine young boys, Carl and Robert, (names have been changed to protect the identity and respect the privacy of the children concerned) came to see me the other day in school. While chatting, I noticed that one of them was chewing gum. Normally, children are aware of their decorum and manners and if they do forget, their peers would remind them about it. In this case, none of them were aware. Something has changed.
One fine day, I received calls from parents who asked me to speak to their 8 and 10-year-old sons. They wanted me to use my authority to rein them in. The boys were on their mobile phones for hours on end; they were ill mannered and aggressive if asked to give up the mobiles; they missed their meals; they refused to help out at home with the household chores; they got up late and were generally irresponsible and callous.
In order to assess the effect of this pandemic on the learning gaps, I asked three or four smart boys presently in Class 8, to solve the Class 6 Mathematics paper. The results astounded me! They scored less than 40%!
The effects of the pandemic, much like the virus, are creeping stealthily into the lives of our vulnerable children. Like the line in Paul Simon’s song, “silence like a cancer grows”, disturbing changes in behaviour is spreading among our children like the dangerous cancer.
I watched the young students coming in for their ICSE exams which were held in November. There was something missing in these boys: the smiles, the sparkle in the eyes, the ebullience, the spring in their steps, their joy of being with their companions. They looked listless and mechanical in their gaits.
I am worried. I feel for our children. I want to do something to help them. I did some serious reading on the adverse effects of the pandemic on the lives of the children across the world.
So, what are some of the effects of the pandemic that we should be concerned about?
1. ‘Closing Schools Closes Lives’ (Prof Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health)
The closure of schools is, of course, damaging to children’s education. Because schools are not just a place for learning. They are places where kids socialise, develop emotionally and, for some, a refuge from troubled family life. Prof Viner goes on to say the pandemic has caused a range of harms to children across the board from being isolated and lonely, to suffering from sleep problems and reduced physical activity . .
2. Mental Health problems on the rise
Due to the lack of outdoor activities and a structured lifestyle, children are getting restless and bored. They lack focus in their lives and are busy with their mobile phones and other screen time activities. This often leads to family tensions, feelings of isolation from friends and loneliness. There is often a lack of purpose and they seek refuge in online gaming and cut themselves off from other people. They live in their own world completely oblivious of their surrounding concerns.
3. Children with Special Needs Suffer Silently
While most students have had routines disrupted, the children perhaps most affected by this disruption are special needs students. One of the strategies that works best for them is a structured routine. And that is not there. It is now the job of the parents to establish a structured routine for them. The parents of special needs children have struggled through trial-and-error process to find out what works and what doesn’t, to encourage their children to engage with virtual education.
4. Children living in rural areas and belonging to low income group are affected the most.
It is the disadvantaged children who pay the greatest price, as they will fall the furthest behind, and have the fewest resources available to ‘çatch up’ once the pandemic threat has passed. Our children of Providence School are facing huge problems and some have dropped out of school as they need to work to support their families. We have a school called Edmund Rice School Mangkara in the remote area in the West Khasi Hills about 15 kms from Kynshi. This school educates the poorest of the poor from the surrounding villages. The lockdown has hit them hard and children have forgotten what they learned earlier.
5. Academic Fall out
Online classes are no substitute to the regular classes. What we have seen is that children are forgetting what they already know – a regression that will be much harder to remedy. Since there is no face-to-face interaction like in the normal classroom situation where dialogues, debates, and normal discourses between children and teachers happen, children are losing their conversational skills. They are not able to express themselves. Online exams are generally based on MCQs and as a result children are not writing enough. The writing skills have deteriorated and children don’t want to write anymore. They find writing to be tedious and time consuming. Reading habits are on the decline.
Getting children to sit still and study even for an hour is becoming a challenging task for parents and teachers. Procrastination is on the rise and quite a number of our senior boys have not submitted their projects on time. The habit of daily study is missing and children have lost the healthy competitive edge that we normally find in the engaging classroom situation.
The best learning takes place in the classroom situations, where children learn from each other and from their mistakes. Very often what the teachers find difficult to explain is easily decoded by the children who help each other in a spirit of give and take.
Online classes are not the best platforms for asking questions especially by the shy ones. A lot of questions remain unanswered and doubts never clarified. As a result, the learning gaps increase.
The lack of opportunity for intellectually nourishing activities like music lessons, co-curricular activities, overnight Campfire Trails summer camps, picnics and Creation Week activities seriously hamper the learning experiences that are not found in the text books.
6. Arrested development
For children or adolescents of any age, the uncertainty and the loss of their own freedom will be hard to process and could lead to long-term behavioural problems. It’s also unclear how the isolation and physical distancing may influence the development of socio-emotional skills, like regulating your feelings, exercising self-control and managing conflicts with your peers. The reflections of older students show that friends played a central role in handling problems and maintaining a positive outlook on life. Value Education and Life Skills classes could be of great help where teachers take on the responsibility to address and care-front these issues.
Only with a concerted effort from parents, teachers, social workers, psychiatrists and administrators can we be sure that children of all classes can emerge from the crisis ready to cope and thrive in the post-Covid-19 world.
7. Living in close proximity in families
Lockdown did help families to bond closely as more opportunities were created to share leisure activities or do housework and small household repairs together. Children described growing closer to their families but also suffering from having to live in such close proximity all the time, especially with younger siblings. Some children also wrote about tensions and feelings of isolation in the home, not being able to share personal matters in a trusting atmosphere, being pressed to do too many home chores on top of managing schoolwork, and missing out on parental attention. They regretted not being able to see close relatives, including grandparents, parents who were living apart from them or who had to travel to work, and were concerned about their welfare.
8. Online Classes – Strenuous for most students
Children of Junior & Senior classes find it difficult, and physically straining, to sit at the computer all day. They face problems with self-motivation, school assignments and homework. Students complain that they can’t get out of the house and meet up with their friends. The routine gets them down as there is no physical activity. Sleep problems are on the rise. For some senior students, not knowing whether they would be able to graduate with good results and continue their education in high school is the greatest source of distress, far exceeding fear of the virus.
From their academic success to their social skills and mental health, the pandemic is a crisis for today’s children – and the fallout may follow them for the rest of their lives. When today’s children and adolescents grow up, will they see themselves as a “lost generation”, whose lives will forever fall in the shadow of a global pandemic?
As educators involved in our children’s lives, we need to do something to alleviate these problems. We need to come up with creative solutions to tackle these problems. Parents, Teachers, Counsellors, Special Educators, Caregivers and School Management need to work together and support each other. I believe we can make a difference if we have the will and the passion to do something practical and beneficial for our children and young students.
(The writer is Principal, St. Edmund’s School, Shillong)

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