Our Piarist Schools during the academic year 2020 to 2021 were not spared from the challenges caused by the pandemic. Stressors such as worry, stress, and grief that cause various mental health problems were also experienced by our students, teachers, and Piarist communities. Although many people are getting vaccinated nowadays, struggles and losses of the past year will continue to affect us especially the most vulnerable in our society, our children, and youth. Many of them have had tough times coping emotionally. Some of them try to hide their struggles because of fear and shame or they do not know how to talk about their experiences. So what are the causes of these stressors? How can we as Piarist educators identify signs of stress and mental health challenges among our students? What can we do to help our kids during this tough time?
According to Archana Basu, a research scientist and clinical psychologist from Harvard, worry or anxiety are the expected responses during the period of the pandemic. Disease aspects, economic stressors, and traumatic experiences can be experienced by children and youth, too. However, in the academic context, the biggest school-related stressors for our students is the remote learning mode. She explains that children generally learn well when actively engaged and in environments where they feel safe and socially connected. Moreover, remote learning requires a level of sustained attention and emotional regulation that is a very big demand, developmentally, for students in primary and middle school. In the Philippines alone, the burden was also extended to parents who became instant computer technicians and part-time teachers while doing their jobs. Because of the situation in physical safety, and social connectedness, our students’ mental health is being challenged.
According to the American Psychological Association, it is difficult for educators to indicate and identify if the students are experiencing mental health difficulties due to non-physical contact. However, educators can still communicate with the parents to identify students who may need extra support.
An online article from healthychildren.org listed several signs of stress and mental health challenges among students. It notifies the readers that mental health challenges are not the same for every child or teen, but there are some common symptoms. Infants, toddlers, and young children may experience backward progress in skills and developmental milestones. Problems like irritability, lack of sleep, separation anxiety, and many more may also increase. It is a different situation for older children and adolescents. They may show signs of distress with symptoms such as changes in mood, behavior, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, hard time falling or staying asleep, changes in appetite, less interest in schoolwork, and some cases death or suicide, or talking about it.
Besides communicating with the parents about this situation, as Piarist educators, it is also our mission to help our children and youth during this tough time. Basu listed several aid activities for parents and educators. In the classroom, whether in person or online, we as educators can help by focusing on socialization and fostering a sense of community among them in our social media apps. We can also take planned breaks from virtual classes like a quick walk or virtual games. Both parents and educators should invite their children to talk about how they are feeling during this difficult time. The APA suggested systematic screening of the school population through online questionnaires, nominating students who appear to be excessively anxious or frequently sad, and providing direct support to students who are potentially at risk for emotional issues.
The mental health of our students is very important for us Piarists. Our students with the healthy mental condition can meet their learning potential, cope with stress and be able to connect with their friends and community. Hence, it is also our mission to provide not only a learning environment but also mental health support especially during this time of the pandemic.
John Michael O. Dion Sch. P.
Br. JOHN MICHAEL O. DION
John Michael hails from the Diocese of Tarlac, Philippines. He is a Psychology graduate, joined the Piarist Fathers in 2012. He took Philosophy units at the Rogationist Seminary and Certificate for Professional Education at the University of San Carlos in Cebu City. In 2020, he finished his Bachelor in Sacred Theology and Master of Arts in Pastoral ministry, specialized in Spirituality and Retreat Direction at the Loyola School of Theology – Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Currently, he is assigned at Calasanz de Davao Community, working as a subject teacher for Philippine history, World Religions, Applied Social Sciences, and Religious Studies at Calasanz de Davao Academy, Inc.