Aug 2021 2nd edition

Help learners cope with COVID-19

Written by More Matshediso

Parents and teachers can help learners cope with the anxiety and depression they are experiencing because of the Coronavirus Disease pandemic.

Learners have been faced with many challenges as a result of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and the lockdown restrictions.

There has been constant change in the learning environment at South Africa’s schools, which can leave learners feeling anxious and fearful.

Learners have had to navigate a new world of online or delayed learning, social isolation, loss, grief and trauma, all of which can cause increased anxiety and depression.

Counselling psychologist Boitumelo Tlhapane, who works for the Inclusive Education Unit at the Free State Department of Education, says feeling anxious or depressed during these trying times is understandable.

“For about a-year-and-a-half now, learners have had to adjust to a new way of learning, with less contact and teaching time.

“Many have had to study independently, while living with uncertainty about their future and the impact of COVID-19 on their hopes and dreams, family and social life,” says Tlhapane.

How to cope

She explains that anxiety is the fear of or worrying about something that has an uncertain outcome. To help learners to cope, she offers the following advice:

  • Understand that it is normal to be anxious or fearful. This does not mean that you are weak. It is okay to not be okay.
  • What you do with your fear is what is important. Are you obeying all the COVID-19 rules that have put in place to protect you and others? What else can you do to ensure your and others’ safety?
  • Do you have reliable information about COVID-19 in case you or a loved one gets infected?
  • Do you have the support of teachers, family and friends to help you when you feel uncertain or stressed or anxious? This is very important.

Teachers can also provide non-contact support and learning through online material and study groups; by setting up reminders to motivate learners to study at home; and by encouraging them to communicate their fears about schooling.

“This is important, especially for subjects that learners find challenging,” she adds.

Family and friends can provide learners with emotional support, in the form of encouragement and constant reassurance, says Tlhapane.

“Learners need to be constantly reminded that their efforts and dedication are recognised and appreciated, thus increasing their confidence.”

How to reduce anxiety

Tlhapane says there are various ways that parents and learners can reduce anxiety. These include:

  • Ensure that there is a strict routine for studying, sleeping and socialising. This will help learners meet their goals and deadlines, while helping them to feel in control of their studies.
  • Learners must use all of the available resources provided at school and on educational programmes, in line with the curriculum, that are broadcast on television and radio.
  • Parents can assist by ensuring that learners are not overexposed to COVID-19 news, especially around death and conspiracy theories, as this may fuel their fears and lead to more psychological conditions.
  • Learners should limit social media consumption, as it wastes study time and is a major distraction.
  • The family can adapt their lifestyle by adding self-care tasks, such as physical exercise and play.

“If a learner loses a loved one, they may experience grief symptoms that resemble depression or anxiety.

“It is important that the school and the parents refer these learners for psycho-social support, which is provided by the Department of Basic Education, or consult free resources or local clinics for a referral,” says Tlhapane.

Signs of distress

Parents should be alert and watch for various signs that may indicate that their child is in distress. These include:

  • The child being withdrawn and isolating from others.
  • Irregular eating and sleep patterns.
  • Being overly emotional, such as constantly crying, irritable moods or losing their temper quickly.
  • Struggling to concentrate.
  • Not completing tasks and homework.
  • Behavioural problems, such as aggressiveness.
  • Making up excuses not to go to school.
  • Constantly on the phone or social media networks.
  • Fails to complete other tasks of daily living.

For assistance, parents and learners can visit the department’s district offices. You can also contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, at 0800 567 567 or send an SMS to 31393 and a counsellor will call you back.

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