— Written by Anantha Kumar Duraiappah and Nandini Chatterjee Singh
COVID-19 is now synonymous with panic, stress, anxiety, anger and fear. This is primarily because of the unexpected and unplanned nature of the event. The human brain is a “prediction machine” and constantly anticipates events so that humans can respond to them quickly and accurately. For example, when we hear “the sky is …”, we can easily predict “blue.” Why then should COVID-19 elicit a fear response? That is because it continues to be an unknown and uncertain entity and the brain continues to struggle to come up with a cognitive response to COVID-19.
Parents are struggling to meet the challenges of homeschooling while juggling work and community obligations, caring for family members and maintaining individual well-being. Teachers are having to adapt overnight to new and untested teaching and assessment methods. Students are concerned about their education as national examinations are cancelled and are grappling with the insecurity of isolation and uncertainty. In poor households where survival is a priority, children are left on their own to home-school or be pulled into other tasks.
To help children embrace this change, it is urgent and necessary that they adapt to social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Some useful SEL practices include mindful breathing exercises, regular healthy eating habits, regular exercise and sleeping hours. A flexible but structured daily routine is recommended, which includes time to do something fun or relaxing as a necessity in times of crisis.
The conscious practice of play in learning and mental well-being not only helps in the development of creativity, motor skills, and decision-making but also reduces anxiety and develops emotional resilience. Children can also find online games that promote social, emotional and academic learning.
Adults may encourage children to practice academic skills at home – for example, using maths to calculate amounts in recipes. Cooking together, sharing failure over spoilt recipes and joy over successful dishes builds social bonds and positive memories both of which are rewarding for the social and emotional brain. Stories with music or audio short story narrations are also valuable audio resources that engage the emotional brain and regulate its activity.
The human brain has the capacity to change and “rewire” in response to experience. This amazing capacity of the brain is called ‘neuroplasticity”. Integrating SEL activities within classroom lessons can be a great way to mainstream SEL practices in education.
Just as students stand up to wish the teacher at the beginning of a class, two breathing exercises – one to count your breaths and one to check into your feelings can be introduced in a typical 40-minute class interspersed at 20-minute intervals. This applies to the present onslaught of online classes which have replaced the traditional school lessons.
So the next time you notice anxious thoughts racing through your mind, or feel your fists clenching up from anger or helplessness, try an SEL activity to manage your anxiety – and change it into positive mental health habits for the future.
— Kumar is inaugural Director, UNESCO MGIEP and Singh is Cognitive Neuroscientist and Senior Programme Officer, UNESCO MGIEP
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