Chia Suan Chong explores ways that teachers who are teaching online during this pandemic can support the well-being of their learners. How can teachers create an environment where learners feel safe enough to share their feelings about the challenges they’re facing? What are the practical lesson activities that could encourage learners to discuss the pandemic or consider their well-being without becoming too negative? Chia answers these questions and more in this article.
There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of this article as well as a link to a webinar in which Chia discusses these ideas at length.
In these unprecedented times, many teenagers and adults are struggling with a variety of issues. Adult learners might feel overwhelmed by the task of combining caring for children with working from home. Some may have financial issues as a result of the pandemic. Teenagers might be worried about their parents or other family members. And very few people are used to spending so much time in the house with their families. These issues can have an impact on an individual’s wellbeing and mental health, and it’s crucial for teachers to be able to offer support when it is needed.
The first step to supporting our learners’ well-being is to get them to talk about what they’re going through, to share their thoughts, and to help them acknowledge their feelings. We might not have the answers, but by actively listening to their concerns, we can help them talk through their issues until they are able to find their own way to improve or cope with the issues they are facing.
Who needs support?
In a face-to-face teaching scenario, teachers notice who needs support when they see changes in mood, appearance or achievement in a learner. They can usually tell when a learner hasn’t been eating or sleeping well, and they know something is wrong when a learner who is usually very conscientious starts arriving late, misses assignment deadlines or struggles to pay attention in class.
Signs that a learner is struggling can be harder to spot when classes are online. It is certainly easier to hide one’s state of mind behind a screen. That’s why it’s more important than ever to open the lines of communication.
Surprisingly, virtual communication can work to a learner’s advantage. Many learners find it easier to communicate when using a keyboard. They feel safer sharing in a virtual space because…
- they don’t feel as if they are speaking in front of a group
- other people are sharing similar issues
- other learners often explain the same thought for them
- they can pretend to be someone else
- they can connect how they feel to a particular situation or topic
Creating a safe space for learners to share
There are a variety of ways to create a safe space and keep communication open in virtual lessons. One tip is to alternate between speaking and writing. When learners have to do a routine task, for example, describing a picture or doing controlled practice of the present perfect, they may be comfortable speaking into their microphones. When learners need to address more sensitive or personal issues, they might prefer to type their thoughts. Even writing down thoughts might be too difficult, and some learners may feel safer expressing their feelings by choosing a photo that expresses how they feel.
Create a feeling of safety by asking learners to voluntarily discuss their challenges with the staying at home in groups rather than asking only one or two learners to talk about things that worry them in front of the whole class. Learners might also find it difficult to express their feelings when they feel exposed in front of a group of people.
In times of crisis, don’t deliberately avoid the difficult topics, but don’t force it either. For learners who have few opportunities to communicate with the world outside their home, the virtual lesson is an opportunity for them to express their thoughts and feelings about their situation. Try to touch on difficult topics in a light and relatable way.
Below is a list of ideas to use in online lessons. Use these ideas to create a complete lesson or use them as an activity in a lesson of your choice.
Practical ways to explore well-being in lessons
Our first instinct may be to ask learners at the start of every lesson how they’re doing. In classes where learners know each other well, some might open up about the difficulties they’re facing. However, many learners might simply respond with “I’m OK,” or “I’m fine”. In order to start a meaningful discussion about the crisis situation, sometimes it’s necessary to start with something less serious.
- Your Quarantine House
A meme that started during the pandemic describes four to six houses that learners can choose to spend their quarantine in. One version of this meme has different celebrities in each of the houses and learners have to say why they prefer to live with certain celebrities and not others. Alternative versions of this meme have individuals picking from different types of houses with different facilities or different menus. While the examples in the memes are far from our reality, a discussion of the ideal situation for quarantine often brings up the real challenges that people face in a pandemic
- Your ideal home office
For adult learners, this activity is similar to the previous one. Learners pick their ideal home office from pictures of six very different home offices. Those who have to work from home might find themselves sharing experiences of converting parts of their home into an office and describing the challenges of working virtually. A variation on this activity could have learners searching online for pictures of their ideal home office as homework and sharing their findings with the class.
- Critical incidents
Critical incidents are like mini case studies that usually feature some kind of problem or misunderstanding. Learners read the scenario and then say what they might do if they were in this situation. This technique is often used in intercultural skills training. Critical incidents are a good way of bringing more controversial scenarios into the classroom and engaging learners without directly being personal. Here’s an example:
“Ever since the start of the pandemic, Javi is having problems looking after his physical and mental well-being. He finds it difficult to sleep at night. He stays awake worrying about his parents and all the crazy things happening in the world. He’s waking up at 11am every day and spending most of his day in front of the TV in his pajamas.”
What would you do to help Javi?”
This particular critical incident helps learners discuss the importance of routines, social connections, exercise and healthy living without directly giving advice about these topics. Learners are encouraged to make suggestions and in the process, learn how these aspects can affect their well-being.
By having learners work together in groups on lists such as ‘Top ten things to have at home in a pandemic’ or ‘Top five things to do when the pandemic crisis is over’, they have a platform to discuss their current situation. Part of maintaining well-being is learning to notice the positive things around us, learning new things, giving to others, and connecting with other people. In order to help learners focus on positive aspects, they can discuss topics like ‘Top ten things we are grateful for’, ‘Top things we can learn while staying at home’, ‘Ways we can be kind to others during this pandemic or ‘Twenty ways of connecting with other people from our homes’. Reflecting on their positive actions and the positive aspects of their situations will help maintain their well-being.
- Mindfulness exercises
Mindfulness techniques and exercises have become more popular over the last few years in both companies and schools. In these stressful times, mindfulness exercises can help bring calmness, awareness and focus to our learners. A simple mindfulness exercise might involve asking learners to close their eyes and become aware of the sounds around them. Or, asking learners to bring a small food item to the virtual class (e.g. a raisin) and describe the textures and tastes as they eat their own food. More elaborate mindfulness exercises might make use of music to have learners visualise a picture, a character or a story. As they describe what they are visualising, they might also talk about the emotions that the piece of music creates in them.
Now that they’ve shared their feelings…
Through the different discussions in the class, learners become more willing to share their feelings and talk about the challenges they face in difficult times. As teachers, it is important to listen and understand, but not judge. Teachers need to guide learners to develop hope and positive thinking. Where necessary, offer to chat one-to-one if a learner needs to talk more about their feelings and their situation.
And remember, if you think a learner needs urgent support, contact professionals with the expertise to deal with these issues. Do not try to take everything on by yourself.
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Online Education: Attending to Our Students' Well-being