Why Mental Health Needs to Be the Top Priority

COVID-19 is a learning curve for everyone involved in education: students, parents, administrators and teachers. So many questions arise from this situation. Are we teaching or are we assigning work? Are students getting equal access to education?

Some teachers are recording video lessons and posting them on various platforms; others are hosting live teaching sessions; others prefer to post written documents, link videos and written resources, and then assign work.

Without a consistent platform across school boards in Canada, how do we know if students are receiving equally valuable lessons, information and assignments? Another question some people may ask is, does that even matter? At the end of all this, will the quality of distance education have any meaningful impact on overall, long-term student success?

Daily ‘school time’

two young boys colouring on the floor

My outlook on homeschooling had already begun to change after the first couple of weeks at home, but what really inspired this new direction of thought was a brief National Geographic article that I read called, “Forget Homeschooling During the Pandemic. Teach Life Skills Instead.”

I don’t have kids. However, I am fortunate enough to be working from home during this time, and I have become somewhat of an additional primary caregiver for my nephews, ages two and four, as both my sister and her husband are essential workers.

As an aunt, I want to have fun with them, but as an educator, I was very diligent about daily ‘school time.’ Every day that they spent with me consisted of language and math, storytime, directed centre time, free play time, craft time, etc.

I have not taught kindergarten since my one-month kindergarten placement, during my Bachelor of Education program back in 2008, so I frantically scoured the Michaels, Indigo and Staples websites for resources—craft supplies, books and even prizes to put in their ‘reward box.’

I put reward sheets and a word wall on the fridge, set up centres and had a daily schedule. As a result, and as every parent knows, I was exhausted and stressed out.

After reading the aforementioned article, I really took the time to reflect on who I am as a person and how I could translate that into valuable learning experiences for my nephews. I came to define myself as basically a physical educator with a passion for dough (yes, dough, as in flour, water and yeast—very hard to come by at the moment), an amateur gardener (who plants every year, but usually only gets one type of vegetable to grow), a fervent believer in the mind-body connection and a fan of books (preferably non-fiction), National Geographic, BBC Earth and the Smithsonian Channel. 

After the first few weeks of being a homeschooling aunt, I decided to forget everything that I knew about teaching kindergarten. I decided to throw all my planning, scheduling, lessons and structure out the window. Am I saying that this is the correct approach? No. I’m saying that every individual has to approach their COVID-19 experience in a way that suits them and their needs.

I could no longer take care of two children, run a classroom for two, prepare resources for my regular classrooms, attend my virtual meetings, run errands for my parents, do the cooking, cleaning, household chores and yard maintenance, find time each day (mostly) to squeeze in a workout and some Yoga, get sufficient sleep and still maintain sound mental health.

Spontaneous learning

young boy water plants

I had already begun to identify more organic and spontaneously occurring opportunities to teach, but this one brief article is what really propelled me fully, and with conviction, in a new direction.

I realized that my nephews were already learning by taking care of their own strawberry plants, and by seeing how long it takes beans to germinate. They were already digging their hands in soil and comparing the textures of the older, rougher calamondin leaves to the younger, shiny, almost rubbery feel of the new growth.

They have watched the buds turn into flowers and the flowers turn into fruits. They learned that plants thrive with soil, sunlight, water and a little extra help from our breakfast eggshells. Those are meaningful, anxiety-free, learning experiences.

Now they count the buds, the stairs, the dishes and the pieces of Lego it takes to build a tower, and then they add that number to the pieces of Lego that it takes to build their second tower. When they are done, we discuss which one is bigger, smaller, wider, skinnier, stronger, weaker. 

We still read every day. I read to them, and we look for things like rhymes, alliteration, sounds and words of the day. My older nephew ‘plays teacher,’ reading to his brother and me, and then we have silent reading time. I get to read my book and they read theirs.

We cook and bake and they learn about the science of yeast. We talk about halving recipes or doubling recipes. They work on their fine motor skills by whisking, flipping, cracking, stirring, pouring, kneading, scooping, mixing and shaping. 

They have cut, coloured and glittered hearts in support of frontline workers. When I fold the laundry, they match socks. They help set and clear the table. While I clean, work or am in a Zoom meeting, they do things like play ‘Sink or Float’ by using a plastic bin full of water and objects that they find around the house, or draw pictures and patterns on the glass doors with window markers. And yes, sometimes I put on the television. There are so many wonderful children’s shows.

When the weather permits, we use sidewalk chalk and draw hopscotches, obstacle courses and targets on the driveway. They practice their aim, their throw, jumping on one foot or two, balancing and skipping. They play with bubbles or run up and down my sloping backyard, tagging and laughing. They look for bugs while I pull out weeds. 

When the weather doesn’t permit, we put on music. I pull out my djembe or cowboy hats and we dance and jump and sing. We pretend to be rock stars and ballerinas and line dancers. They listen to all musical genres, from Soca to ’80s rock to classical music, and when Yoga time is over, the older one asks for, “one more trick.”

Children learn from adults

young boy with scredriver

When I reflect on what I am doing with them, I know that they are learning. They are learning science and math and language, and about rhythm and musical genres, as well as developing small and large motor skills; but more importantly, I am ensuring that our mental health is a priority.

Does this mean that I think school is non-essential? Absolutely not. I am an educator and I believe in a robust, meaningful, educational program led by passionate, qualified and dedicated educators. I have seen the power of a devoted teacher on student success almost every day, for the last 12 years.

However, I also believe that in unprecedented times, we are called on to be flexible and to acknowledge that mental health should be the priority in every household, regardless of the makeup of that unit.

I think this is an amazing opportunity to continue to nurture and enrich much of the academics and skills that children would be learning in school. I also see it as an opportunity to teach children resilience, adaptability and how to find meaning in this very moment, in this current reality.

Children feed off of and learn from the adults in their lives. As such, children who see adults adapting to this new reality in a healthy way will also begin to adjust to this new reality in a healthy way. On the other hand, if the adults in the home are visibly exhibiting anxiety, the children in the home will also view this situation as a time of stress.

After the first two weeks of caring for my nephews, the older one began to regularly ask me, “Auntie, are you happy?”—a question that he had never asked me before. Unbeknownst to me, stress was probably etched on my face and dripping from my tone of voice.

So if, as adults, we can find a way to create an environment that minimizes stress for ourselves, but also allows us to meet the goals that we have set for the children in our lives, then this unique time can actually translate into a valuable experience that can help teach children how to handle challenges and unpredictability throughout their own lives.

The innate curiosity of a child

boy and girl peaking under a door

In the National Geographic article, parents are teaching their children to rebuild engines, to garden, to make beds and fold laundry. The challenge is for each of us to reflect on what we know, what we need to do and what we enjoy, and to translate that into genuine learning for a child.

So, tap into your strengths and your interests (and even your chores), and make those the teachable moments that you share with your child. When we are mindful of these moments then we, and the children in our lives, are less focused on worrying about what has happened or what may happen.

I will again pose the question: At the end of all this, will the quality of distance education have any meaningful impact on overall, long-term student success? We do not know the answer to that, but in the long run, I think that what matters is the mental health of the family and that the children are learning.

Whether this learning occurs through guided lessons, family interests, spontaneous opportunities, necessity or a combination of all these options, the priority should be on continuing to nurture each child’s mental health, their desire to learn and the innate curiosity that each child possesses.

And while BBC Earth, National Geographic or the Smithsonian Channel can sometimes be too mature for a two- and a four-year-old, when we are all tired and ready to unwind, we can all agree on The Magic School Bus.

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