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When it’s not all dancing and baking: supporting high school students during COVID-19

By Amalia Fawcett, Wellbeing Hub Manager

A lot of the advice about supporting your children to learn at home emphasises the need to take it easy, not try replicate school and to make sure you all have a break. But what about when your young person is in high school or college and is under pressure to finish work? What if your young person is struggling with work when they don’t have in-person support from teachers? While a primary student might be able to bake some cookies instead of complete their maths worksheet, for high schoolers it may not be that simple.

I’ve asked teachers, school staff and students for their tips to support your high schooler to cope. Here are the top five suggestions.

1.      Agree on a routine that allows for down time

A routine helps us get prepared to learn. Many schools are providing suggested timetables, which may be perfect for your young person or you may need to come up with something yourselves. Whichever way you and your young person handle it, the important aspects to note are that an established and agreed-to routine will support your young person to work effectively, and the routine must carve out time for relaxation.

Where possible, get your young person to take the lead on this. If limits are set in consultation with your young person, they are far more likely to abide by them and giving them the responsibility for it encourages self-regulation in their learning.

Your young person may complete work quickly or struggle to get through all that is set. In either case it is important they have time to rest so the routine will need to be tailored to their style and needs.

“There is no specific time students should spend studying…given different students of different ages will complete tasks and grasp concepts at different rates.” (The Conversation)

Your young person may rise early and complete work early in the day or need a sleep in and be more effective working in the afternoon. You can tailor the routine to their and your needs, but keep in mind some schools will have check-in times that will be important to include in your timetable.

When setting up your routine, manage your expectations about how much work will be possible.

“Advice from schools overseas, who started this before us, is that it is not possible to complete a six-hour school day at home. Downtime will be essential and ensuring it is in place from the outset will assist your young person in structuring their work around it.” (Hamish, a high school teacher)

The parameters around downtime and work time will need to be clear. Be as supportive as possible, while setting some limits around getting enough sleep and waking on time to attend online teaching opportunities and teacher contact time.

2.      Set achievable goals

Teachers know that if students do not gain a sense of achievement early they will disengage from the learning task. It is important that students are engaged in work that is not so easy that it becomes boring, and not so difficult that they feel overwhelmed. This is called the zone of proximal development and is where a young person can complete a task, with some guidance and support. In other words, they are completing a task that is extending their learning, without overwhelming them.

Teachers will be setting work for whole classes but are likely to be aware of the differing abilities in the class, so touch base with them if you feel the expectations are unrealistic for your young person. Keep in mind though, that usually teachers are able to check in with your young person while they are working on something, so can adjust or explain accordingly. Teachers are now being asked to completely reinvent their instruction, without that real-time feedback, so will need support from families, even when something is not working for you.



3.      Keep in touch with the school

Reach out and access the help that the school is offering and encourage your young person to do that too. Schools are doing things differently; some schools are doing weekly phone calls to families, some are doing daily check-ins online. Whatever the approach of the individual school, if you do not indicate when your young person is struggling, then schools will assume everything is ok.

This is an important skill for your young person to practice – asking for help is an important way to increase the support when things are not working. This is true in many contexts. If this is hard for your young person, discuss with them whether there is a particular teacher they feel comfortable with, and start there.

Teachers I have spoken with have said they are missing their students and are trying very hard to support them from afar. They want the best for their classes and families can assist with this by succinctly and respectfully communicating when things are not working.

4.      Mandate social time

Eliza has worked in an out of school care program and is also a mum of teenagers. To support her 17-year-old son in managing the stress, she has made online social time with his friends mandatory. She notes that the new online learning environment is not ideal for her son.

“Without the invaluable face-to-face time teachers provide under normal circumstances, his stress levels are going through the roof. He has to navigate his way through a significant amount of work without the benefit of questions being answered in real time. His friends can help him relax, laugh and muck around in a way I can’t, so I told him he has to make time for this every day.”

While this social connection is crucial, there will need to be limits to it so young people can manage their time. You will also need to check in to ensure your young person is not being stressed vicariously by their peers and that they are safe online. There are many resources to support families and young people to be safe online, but one basic tip is to ensure devices are kept in family areas, rather than in bedrooms. This means their use can be monitored and any negative behaviour does not follow your young person into their bedroom, which should be a rest zone. Find more tips here:  https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/covid-19

5.      Continue to prioritise wellbeing

Perhaps most importantly, prioritise the mental and emotional health of your young person and family. Self-care, family care, good food and exercise are essential. This is a difficult time and will require additional attention be paid to young people’s resilience. Reassure your young person that stress and anxiety is a normal reaction to this situation, and it will pass. Model healthy ways to cope with this stress and make time for connection as a family.

If your young person needs further support, there are many services they can access. Check with the school about how their existing support services are working, but you can also find help externally. Beyond Blue and Headspace both have helplines and resources to support mental health and wellbeing.


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