Building resilience

As pandemic continues to disrupt education, Life spoke with paediatric physiotherapist Cheryl Chia on how to care for your child's mental health

Kindergarten students from the Wichuthit school in Bangkok attend a rehearsal of social distancing measures. ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

The Covid-19 pandemic has left private and government schools in Thailand in uncharted territory. While much has been discussed about how to keep children engaged during these trying times, how educators and students are fairing emotionally in adjusting to the new normal has not been given much thought.

Prior to the crisis, remote education, or for that matter national efforts to use technology in supporting remote learning, distance education and online learning, was rarely heard of.

Needless to say, unpredictability and uncertainties today have gradually changed the dynamics of education.

To get the perspective of an expert on how students and teachers can better deal with their emotions under Covid-19, Life spoke with Cheryl Chia, a paediatric physiotherapist and author of a book titled Fit Brains Learn Better: A Chronicle Of 12 Years Of Brain Fitness Training.

Chia is the founder and research director at BrainFit, which focuses on helping children from birth until the age of 18 develop a learning advantage by strengthening their brain fitness and intelligence. She has over 20 years' experience in brain fitness training.

In one of her recent online seminars, she shared her insights on how stress impacts the brain, and more importantly, how teachers and students can develop better emotional regulation abilities and stronger resilience during a time such as this.

The Singaporean-born physiotherapist believes that while parents can never completely shield their children from challenging life circumstances like Covid-19, they can help them nurture more resilient brains which bounce back faster and stronger in the face of adversity.

Please explain the stress, fear and anxiety that are triggered by a health emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic on today's teachers and students.

This pandemic is creating a tremendous amount of uncertainty for both teachers and students [and parents!]. Teachers have been thrown into the uncharted territory of online teaching from home, while still having to manage their own households. Meanwhile, students need to deal with disruption in their routine and structure for the school year. As our brains thrive on predictability, uncertainty itself is stress-inducing. The different experiences are not about teachers versus students but more of how each individual copes with each of these uncertainties and stresses. Teachers with supportive family members, technical know-how and stronger self-coping strategies will be able to handle stress better, while teachers with less support at home and less technical skills and tools may struggle. Likewise, students with supportive family members who continue to instil a regular routine and engage in healthy coping activities like physical exercise will do better than others without these external support structures. The symptoms that may surface also vary according to the individual. From sleep and eating disruptions to emotional disturbances in the form of feeling overwhelmed, despair or anger, individuals without support may experience any of these.

How can we build resilience for children with an online set-up such as during this Covid-19 situation?

Resilience means bouncing back from a setback. Building resilience in such times is all about getting back to activities such as breathing exercises, especially during times of negative and stressful emotion. This can be a joint activity as adults can equally benefit from this.

By doing this, children can form good coping strategies for the future. Resilience is really about not being crushed by a setback and finding a way to come out of those negative and depressing feelings.

Also, plan a fun activity every day, or come up with something creative depending on the age of your child. Spend time connecting with them, asking questions that relate to the person they are. This inquisitiveness does not stem from a desire to reprimand or for that matter guide them, but just because you are curious, similar to when one falls in love.

By creating such a moment you are giving the child strategies and providing a model of what they can do the next time they face a setback.

Are special needs children more prone to stress than neurotypical kids?

I think the tips and strategies will be the same, but certainly, teachers and parents will need to be a lot more patient. You will probably need to have your breathing activities simplified.

Possibly, this group of students will be under more stress because life could be more challenging for them on a daily basis. School may be a lot harder to cope with, so potentially they might be under more stress, which is bound to happen when you are expected to behave beyond your ability. For some of these children, their brains may not have the ability to focus nor the language skills necessary, yet we expect them to perform.

Share something about the chronic symptoms that can arise due to neglect of addressing emotional issues at this time and how to best deal with the situation so one can function to the best of their ability.

We know that prolonged toxic stress can have many undesirable effects on our bodies. At the neurological level, it can create problems relating to focus and memory as well as lead to learning issues and predispose individuals to depression or even dementia. Moreover, it can create inflammatory responses in our bodies, leading to arthritis, gastritis and intestinal problems. Chronic unmanaged stress can also lead to health-related conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. The key to preventing these undesirable effects is to learn and apply strategies to manage stressful and anxiety-inducing emotions. In my webinar, we discussed three strategies which may be helpful -- the 3 "S" of silence, shifting and sharing. For example, silencing worrying thoughts through breathing and mindfulness exercises may be helpful. Actively shifting our moods by recalling happy memories or engaging in fun activities is another helpful strategy. Finally, sharing through conversations with our loved ones can also generate feelings of support and love. These conversations should spark a genuine interest in the other party, akin to the kind of conversations we have when we first fall in love with a person and are eager to listen and exchange at a deeper level.

What are some of the drawbacks of remote learning that can impact the mind, and how can teachers and parents support students in this transition?

Remote learning cannot replace real human-to-human interaction. Hence, there will be a negative impact on students' social development. Many important social-emotional skills can only be built through real-time interactions among students and teachers. Depending on how remote learning is implemented, it may also increase the number of sedentary hours or reduce the structured routines needed by many students to learn successfully. Parents and teachers can try to create more structured routines by including physical activities where possible and giving students opportunities to interact and respond or even engage in social-emotional learning lessons to mitigate some of these concerns. However, there will also be new opportunities that come with shifting to online learning, such as accessing technology that allows personalisation. Educators should consider how to maximise these opportunities.

Socially-distanced lunch at Wichuthit school. ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

How can communities play a more tangible role in supporting their youth to stay focused on their education in these unprecedented times?

I think if employers can be more supportive of their parent employees at this stage, parents can have more bandwidth -- both emotionally and time-wise to support their own children. These are indeed unprecedented times with uncertainties on many fronts. If all parties can consider how to better support the people in their circles, then together we can better support ourselves and our youths through this.