Back to school ... in presence! 

The health emergency from the Covid-19 pandemic has strongly impacted everyone's life, leading to a readjustment of everyday life. One of the challenges faced in the last year and a half by children, adolescents and their parents was to adapt to distance learning (DL) which, although on the one hand, it offered opportunities to children and adolescents, on the other created some inconveniences. 

The distance learning, forced isolation and lack of sociability are factors that have had effects psychological on children and adolescents who wish to return to school after a year. According to a survey conducted by the italian National Council of Psychologists Order (CNOP) on behalf of MIUR (Ministry of Education, University and Research) on children between 5 and 13 years and boys between 14 and 19 years, an increase of 24% of discomfort and/or psychological problems manifested with a variability of symptoms emerges: anxiety, drop in mood up to closure in itself, more frequent among girls; anger, aggression, and opposition, more typical instead of males.

"It is undeniable that in the last year the psychological well-being of children has been severely tested. The e-learning modality was not received with the same enthusiasm by all the children. While representing an enormous resource, it has presented and presents many limitations and cannot and must not replace traditional teaching ”. 

It has been said by the dr Sabrina Suma, clinical psychologist in Dubai 

Sabrina Suma - psychologist

What has been the impact of isolation and e-learning on children's lives?  

Unfortunately, the impact was enormous. Good mental health cannot be separated from correct sociability and forced isolation and social distancing have put a strain on the patience of young and old. The exclusive use and in any case mass of online mode, led to a radical change in the learning environment, which was more boring and "aseptic" from all points of view. Children often reacted with irritability and difficulty in paying attention, causing great concern in parents and teachers, and increasing the risk of having hasty diagnoses of ADHD, or learning disabilities, even in those cases where it was not necessary.

From the learning prospective?

Distance learning has proved useful during the most critical phase, but unsuccessful if used for long periods. Attendance school creates a healthy routine made up of schedules, respect for rules and regulations, complicity and social relations with classmates and teachers. All this in distance learning is limited. Deprived of important sensory and emotional information, children and young people felt confused, bored and irritable and reacted by closing themselves even more in a virtual world that can no longer be considered a "safe zone".

Teachers also suffered a lot from the online mode: the effectiveness of face-to-face teaching is due precisely to the relational component and, in the world of teaching, the relationship between student teachers and classmates is fundamental. In online relationships the non-verbal and emotional component is limited and this explains why using this learning method exclusively, especially in developmental age, is strongly discouraged. My vision is not meant to be romantic, but it is a real and scientific consideration: mirror neurons and so-called GPS neurons are directly involved in the learning experience. GPS neuronsare very important for developing empathic and healthy imitation skills and fundamental in autobiographical memory, as Conney Horvath, neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne and expert in educational psychology, reminds us: nothing can replace the effectiveness of "face to face" learning ".

What were the psychological consequences?

Surely the situation of confinement has determined a condition of considerable stress on the children and on the whole educational system. The psychological consequences were important: during the pandemic, the daily routine of parents, teachers and pupils was disrupted and the time that children had to spend in front of screens connected to a network increased considerably. Deprived of social contact and not being able to attend the school or sports environment, children and adolescents have taken refuge in a virtual world and the use of social media and message platforms, usually strongly discouraged in the more tender age groups, have even been encouraged, becoming at the same time the cause and the antidote to isolation.

What were the inconveniences?

The immediate discomfort was initially expressed through restlessness, a sense of loss, irritability, and lack of concentration, but, with the perpetuation of the state of emergency and uncertainty, the situation has become further complicated and the negative effects, unfortunately, risk becoming more important. I think of the consequences, for example, that the lack of adequate contact or sensory deprivation can have in children, or the sense of depersonalization and inappropriateness experienced by pre-adolescents, who build their own identity based almost exclusively on the peer group and then again, to teenagers who socially withdraw into a virtual world from which they struggle to get out, the so-called "Hikikomori". What is really worrying now are the long-term consequences, which is why it is important for the school to restart. We need to find solutions that allow students of all ages to return to “experience” traditional teaching in safety.

When to contact the specialist?

The behaviors that signal a worrying and significant state of discomfort are basically all those that make us understand that the child or adolescent has created a toxic but reassuring bubble within which he hides and protects himself, such as withdrawal from real life, excessive isolation, and massive or exclusive use of technology, lack of communication, apathy or excessive irritability, prolonged and unjustified crying or anger. Instead, normal are all those situations in which the child is only a little unmotivated, sad or bored: it is called "Languishing" and it is a feeling that adults know very well; it is typical of this pandemic crisis and consists in experiencing a feeling of demotivation, confusion, or background emotional dulling which we will only get rid of when the crisis is resolved.

Back to school. What does the return to "normality" represent for children, albeit in compliance with the rules of prevention?

It represents a wonderful and indispensable opportunity. Even if I struggle a little to define it as a return to normality; in reality, especially in Italy, one gets the impression that the rules are always tightened at the beginning and during the school year, and then evaporate during the summer months. So, paradoxically, children and adolescents are freer to meet and experience sociality in freedom during the refreshing frivolous summer holidays, compared to September, the month scheduled for school return and characterized by a progressive and sudden increase in cases.

What are your tips for better coping with the return to school?

Movement, routine, and metacommunication. Exercise is especially important when in the company and outdoors: the body wakes up, cortisol levels are reduced and the production of endorphins increases; often after exercise we feel tired but happy, and so it is also for children and adolescents. 

Maintain a routine even in cases where the measures are exacerbated and the DL is passed: do not allow the child to remain all day in pajamas and nibbles all day without set times for meals or to go to sleep and above all "metacommunicate" .

As I have reiterated several times, to suffer the most from a psychological point of view was our emotional intelligence, it is important to talk to children, not to make them feel alone, to give the opportunity to share anxieties and worries without being tempted by justified but forced and sterile reassurances, and let the children have the opportunity to safely meet peers, possibly in open spaces and in small groups, a sort of "foster family" as Alberto Pellai calls it, based more on relationships of affinity than consanguinity.

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