Picture this: One day you return from school, having taken a board exam or a class test or spent just a regular day, and the next day you hear the school is going to be shut due to a nationwide lockdown to restrict the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
Before you can even process the news, you realise life as you knew it–early mornings, rushing out to board the school bus, the clamour of meeting friends, sharing tiffin, the playground, cracking jokes in the middle of class–is all set to change. For over three weeks now, you have been cooped up at home, with your immediate family and barely any contact with the outside world. This is something neither your parents, nor your grandparents have ever experienced in the past, so even their coping skills are rather raw. Such unprecedented moments have neither been expected, nor adequately prepared for.
Within days, your school, concerned about completing syllabi and not breaking the continuum of learning, launches online classes and in no time, private tuition teachers follow suit and literally zoom into your lives. So, gone is the morning rush, the run in the park, birthday parties and hangouts with friends. Now it’s a new regimen with no real time to adapt. Soon, summer holidays as you have known them for years, will also not be the same.
This has been the story of students in many parts of India, especially in cities, which are better served by technology than rural areas. Children, especially in middle and senior school, spend a significant part of the day in front of the screen, taking online lessons on Zoom or Google Classrooms or whatever online platform the school has opted for. In places where access to technology is limited, schools and teachers are trying to reach out through their phones, recording lessons and sending them to students on WhatsApp.
Yet, what does it look like from the eyes of a child? Fitting into a new system always takes some time, before a sense of routine and ease sets in. For adults and parents, to imagine what a child is going through, recalling their first day in school or college or a new workplace would help.
Here, your home that was most likely your comfort zone, has changed character. School has now come home, so it doubles up as a classroom. While parents are posting happy pictures of children as young as five or six sitting in front of a laptop, transfixed by online classes, mental health professionals sound a word of caution.
Dr Debanjan Banerjee, Psychiatrist, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore,says, “Working or consulting from home and studying from home are not the same. It is important to remember that children are much more behaviourally oriented. So, the home and school or outdoor and indoor balance becomes very important. Parents have expressed concerns about technology addiction, though it depends on the level of supervision. Online platforms can also cause significant distraction and difficulty in focussing.”
Both parents and teachers have noticed that, at times, whenever a task is assigned to the child and the internet is required, they keep a games browser on or chat with their friends online. This, of course, is a major source of distraction and is shrinking attention span among children.
Yet, as Dr Banerjee says, “Children are not used to this level of concentration. They need a dynamic environment. For any kind of training, the environment matters. For children, it is very difficult to understand and accept this sudden disruption of routine. Young children, especially, do not understand why they will not be able to go to school or the park or share their food with their friends. They suffer from more uncertainty and apprehension.”
Despite these problems, he feels that under the given circumstances, online education is the only way in which schools can connect with students. Attention must be given to make the classes interactive, rather than lectures and power point presentations, with proper breaks in between.
A webinar model, where children can talk to each other and the teacher would also somewhat replicate classroom interaction. “Game-based or puzzle-based learning would help in stimulating interest. It needs to be supplemented by integral familial involvement at home with board games or informal discussion,”
Children are socially isolated these days and any addictions picked up at this stage would have an impact or continue even later, cautions Dr Banerjee.
Children should not feel lonely. Teachers and mental health professionals have underscored the importance of parental and family involvement in a child’s routine. Indoor games, sharing chores, creative pursuits that we all know can serve to break the monotony and offer relief from stress or feelings of alienation.
At the same time, giving children the right information on Covid-19 is critical for their safety and health. “Parents, despite their busy schedules, should take time out and explain to children all aspects of the disease and precautions in simple language. This needs to be age appropriate. They may take the help of infographics or some short films that are available on the internet. This would help dispel misconceptions about the disease, help in protecting all family members and empowering children,” he adds.
Dr Anant Kumar, a Practising Psychologist and Associate Professor at the Xavier Institute of Social Service, Ranchi, says, “Online learning is a new way to attract students and get them involved in learning when they are at home due to Covid-19 lockdown. Although, sometimes, they feel annoyed about their parents constantly nagging them to study and complete the assignments, many children find the lessons more interesting compared to classroom teaching. Children can easily understand and replay the lessons to have a better understanding, which is not always possible in classroom learning. The problem with online learning is that a student cannot clear his doubt by asking or interacting with teachers for conceptual clarity.”
While technology has proved to be a saviour at a time when the outside world is locked, one must tread with utmost care, especially when it comes to young children. “Online classes are not suitable for children below Class IV. For primary children, a blend of creative work, revision of concepts already taught and learnt, and some light chores under supervision of parents is enough. A good routine to the day, physical exercise and parental involvement is more important for young children. As much as possible, they need to be involved in decision making. Distancing from social media is vital to avoid misinformation and panic,” says Dr Banerjee.
(Soumi Das is a teacher and independent writer based in New Delhi.)