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Can Adolescents Grow Through the COVID-19 Crisis? The Role of Positive Education

The return to remote learning during this latest lockdown experience due to COVID-19 continues to create challenges to navigate, including balancing academic engagement and students' social and emotional wellbeing, staff and families. While research shows that school closures and the pandemic, more generally, has led to student distress, the possibility that these disruptions can also promote growth is being researched to understand better the resilience processes adopted by young people.


Friend of Woodleigh, Professor Lea Waters and colleagues in Positive Education argue that researching distress during COVID-19 need not come at the expense of investigating how young people can be strengthened through the pandemic.  As Waters notes,

"Adolescence is a critical life stage for identity formation where teenagers strive for mastery and autonomy, individuate from their parents and gravitate toward their peer groups to have their social and emotional needs met."

With reduced social contact during the pandemic, intrapersonal skills are needed to optimise psychological, emotional and behavioural adjustment, life skills vital to fostering resilience in young people beyond the tyranny of the moment.

The WEL (Wellbeing, Engagement & Learning) program at Woodleigh adopts a Positive Education approach combined with The Resilience Project kind of lens. It develops interventions that explicitly teach students the skills to support their mental health, including gratitude, empathy, mindfulness, positive reappraisal, emotional Processing, and strengths use.

The better a student has coped during remote learning by using these explicitly taught skills, the higher their chance of growing through stress when they return to campus and in life beyond school.

It is consistent with the information we garnered from surveys conducted with students in years 7-12 when they returned to on-site learning in 2020.

Gratitude What is gratitude? It's about paying attention to the things and moments we have right now and not worrying about what we don't have. We practice gratitude by noticing the positives around us and being thankful for things, places, and people in our lives.

Empathy

What does empathy mean? Empathy and kindness are closely linked. So are empathy and compassion. To be empathetic is to put ourselves in the shoes of others to feel and see what they are. We practice this by being kind towards other people.

Mindfulness How to practise mindfulness? Mindfulness activities help us to be present at the moment and often create a feeling of calm. We practice this by slowing down and concentrating on one thing at a time. This includes meditation, colouring-in and flow states.

Positive reappraisal (cognitive)

Positive reappraisal is a meaning-based, cognitive strategy that allows us to attach a positive meaning to the event in personal growth. For example, learning how to re-construct obstacles into opportunities during COVID-19 can help us attain new mindsets and skillsets. 

  • I miss seeing my teachers in person, but I am learning to be a more independent student
  • I have learned more about taking responsibility for my self-care, asking for help when I need it & looking out for my friends

Emotional Processing (emotional)

Emotional Processing is described as the technique of actively processing and expressing one's emotions during times of stress (in contrast to avoidance). Emotional Processing is a positive factor in helping children (and adults) cope with and grow through adverse events such as grief, identity conflict and natural disasters. 

It is important because emotions are indicators of how safe, stable, and secure we feel. When we attend to our emotions, we can assess how a situation affects us and then make necessary shifts to ensure our needs are met.

For example, If we can recognise that we are anxious, we can take positive steps to respond to how we feel by seeking support and "playing to our strengths".

Strengths Use (behavioural)

Strengths are defined as positive capacities and energising and authentic characteristics (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). Strengths use described the extent to which individuals put their strengths into actions and draw upon their strengths in various settings.

Research shows that using our character strengths in the current COVID-19 pandemic can enhance our immunity to stressors by building protective and pragmatic habits and actions. Adding to this, strengths use leads to an increased sense of control/self-efficacy, which may be essential to combat the "uncertainty distress" that many young people currently feel.

" In the COVID-19 pandemic, the strengths of grit and gratitude fostered resilience and positively impacted grades in students. The study found that strengths use was a significant predictor of the degree to which teenagers experienced stress-related growth (SRG). Suggesting that teaching students to identify and use their strengths will be beneficial in preparing them to grow through the current pandemic and in future times of adversity." Bono et al. (2020)

In non-pandemic times, Positive Education interventions have been shown to promote wellbeing in students. Hence, the value of wellbeing skills being taught at Woodleigh before, during and after COVID will continue to play an essential role in the preparedness and prevention for future challenges of Generation Z and will contribute to defining resilience processes that foster stress-related growth. 

Wishing you all a safe & restful semester break,

DONNA NAIRN
Director of Counselling

Acknowledgements, further reading & resources

An amendment from the week 4 issue:

The gender spectrum includes numerous identities, including man, woman, a mixture of both, no gender, a fluid gender, or another gender. Male and female are now the terms that respond to sex, and man and woman are the terms that correspond to gender:  The physical features that you were born with (your biological sex) do not necessarily define your gender. It is now understood that sex is defined as 'male' and 'female', and gender is more complex, and for many, stems outside the traditional 'man' and 'woman' binary. For a complete list of terms, see AIFS' Glossary of Common Terms.