Updated: September 24, 2021 6:29:51 pm
As schools gradually open and welcome children back, there’s a sense of trepidation among adults — “They have lost the skill of socialising”, “they have become addicted to screens”, “there is no routine”. The children have another perspective on it, “I’ve put on so much weight, will I be body-shamed?”, “Will everybody act like everything is back to normal and how much will we have to catch up on our studies?”
Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be
Society wants all children to fit into and conform to its iron-cast expectations. Pandemic or no pandemic, we want children to slip into these moulds and fast! Too bad that the last one-and-half years were extremely hard on them — the fears, losses and uncertainty. It’s time to “pull up the socks” and get on the assembly line of performance.
Postmodernist Michel Foucault, a French historian who studied schools and prison systems (that says a lot!), called the effect of this automatic indoctrination as the “gaze”. Schools are fertile ground for this scrutinous gaze as children are weighed and evaluated against each other. No surprise that most children preferred to keep their cameras off during online classes.
When children return to physical classes, let’s reflect on — what effect will this expectation for them to “get back on track and do it fast” have on their mental health? In our hurry to “return to normality”, will we push our children into internalising their struggles as something “wrong with them” and not being “worthy”? Is it fair on our children who have already been through so much?
Each child is wired and inspired differently
One size does not fit all. That’s not a limitation, that’s what makes our homes, classrooms, schools and this world neurodiverse. Children responded to the pandemic in myriad ways, too. Maya was described as “distracted” as she, like many others, could not engage with online learning. Rhea, who was considered “introverted”, “shy”, really thrived during the lockdown as no social demands were placed on her. Varun, energised by social interactions, had significant run-ins with frustration as he could not meet his friends.
Will we learn to respect children’s diversity of wiring and experiences, or would the coming months become about a constant battle of comparison, criticism, blaming and shaming?
Ask what they learnt, not what they don’t know
Children are not passive recipients of hardships. They respond, they muster skills, they do what they can to survive and sustain themselves through the most challenging times. Some questions that children have asked me — should we act as if everything is normal, start from where we left off? Will no one discuss what we’ve learnt about life, relationships and what really matters? I’d want my teachers to know how I took care of myself when both my parents were down with COVID-19. I lost my grandfather to COVID, but it seems everybody wants me to forget about it and “move on”?
More and more classrooms need to build emotionally safe spaces where teachers, children and parents could discuss:
What steps did they take that helped them?
What did they realise that they really valued?
Which are the communities that supported them?
How can they build this community in school?
What sustained them through the toughest times?
Only when we invite agency from our children can real learning happen.
The way we talk about our children becomes their life stories
Stories don’t just describe our world but shape it. We make stories and stories make us. It might become very convenient to pigeonhole children into single stories — “he’s become addicted to the screen”, “pandemic has made her so lazy”, “he’s really fallen behind”. These are the words that will become woven into the single stories of their life.
Single stories can make children invisible (see author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk The Danger of a Single Story). Over the years, they start internalising the single-story and believe there’s something intrinsically wrong with them, that they don’t belong, that they are unworthy. “There’s something wrong with me”, “I don’t deserve love”, “I feel invisible in my classroom, as if I don’t exist”, “I feel like a ghost”. Memories shape our storyline and our storyline shapes memories. What stories of the pandemic will they grow up with?
I see you
After the anonymity of online classes, it could be a daunting task to return to school after one-and-a-half years with the fear of scrutiny, ridicule and rejection. How could we welcome them back with an “I see you” which is respectful, inclusive and inclusive of all diversity. If you’ve been lucky to have a teacher who practised “I see you” when they met you, you know what I mean. If you’re one such teacher, your students will tell this story one day.
Imagine! As schools reopen, children walk into the class and teachers do an “I see you” with their whole being — touch, eyes, smile and heart. And imagine each child walking through the corridors of life, classrooms of learning, sports fields of exploration, assemblies of appreciation, with an “I see you” at every step. “I accept and love you as you are. You are unique, you are you. I’ll neither compare nor demand what might be difficult for you”.
To be included, acknowledged, welcomed! As we make our way out of this pandemic fog, let’s commit to a better world where no child is left invisible.
Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder, Children First. In this column, she curates the know-how of the children and the youth she works with. She can be reached at email@example.com
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