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Teaching and learning in the face of conflict

After over two years of bouncing from one COVID-19 variant to another, the conflict in Ukraine has put people on the edge and has left many across the world feeling stressed and anxious. The global pandemic has already had a devastating toll on mental health, and the news of the war has only compounded pre-existing feelings of fear and uncertainty, increasing anxiety.

People removed from the conflict may be wondering why their mental health is suffering as a result of the news and images they’re seeing. Part of this can be explained by the fact that our brains are designed to scan for threats to protect us from potential danger. This can lead to an almost unstoppable, constant scouring of the news to help us prepare for the worst – a phenomenon many might know better as “doom scrolling”.

The physical effects of anxiety

Wars obviously alter the psychological health of populations directly exposed to violence. As a result, people suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. According to a report prepared by The World Health Organisation (WHO), the outbreak of war in Ukraine has affected us all and will affect us for a long time to come. It is understandable to feel different feelings, worries and fears. Fear is a natural feeling that warns people of dangers and threats (Jüttemann, 2013). The feeling of anxiety alerts the body and is subject to a normal stress reaction, which increases the adrenaline excretion. Humans weigh the danger of a situation and assess options for action to be able to take appropriate defensive measures. These typically consist of reactions such as flight, waiting or attack. There are physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety which can cause panic attacks. The physical manifestations of anxiety can include the following:  breathlessness, feelings of panic, chest pain, an increased or irregular heart rate, stomach-ache, indigestion, headache, insomnia and many more. Anxiety can cause psychological dissociative disorders, such as depersonalization and emotional hibernation – the experience of feeling unreal, detached, and often, unable to feel emotion.

Compared to the dramatic events in Ukraine, the state of mind of people living in different countries seem quite minor and it is difficult not to feel guilty when our daily lives remain unchanged. However, it can cause a very dangerous syndrome called a syndrome of the privileged, which often leads to neglecting ones’ own needs and not taking care of one’s own resources. Being trapped by guilt also prevents us from acting.

The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on families and especially children of different ages. People are desperate for safety, so many of them managed to flee and there are increasingly more Ukrainian students in different schools across Europe.

Teachers need to know how to behave in this crisis situation, how to support the students who have suddenly appeared in the classroom and how to integrate them with the group. It is not an easy task as each student is different, has a different situation and teachers must show empathy, pedagogical intuition and tact.

What can you do as a teacher?

It is worth thinking how to communicate in the classroom without using words, as some Ukrainian students may have trouble understanding both you as their teacher and their new peers. It is good to rely on non-verbal communication strategies first, such as drawing or mime. Here are more ideas:

  • You may ask your students to share and discuss a colour, a symbol or an image that represents how they are feeling.
  • Students can mime what they feel using cards or gestures.
  • You can create a ‘box of fears’ where everybody can put a slip of paper with written or drawn fear they may be experiencing.
  • You can use picture and story books to help children understand relevant concepts and to think about their treatment of others.
  • You can do process drama using metaphors and symbols to talk about difficult issues
  • You can make a gratitude jar where students and teachers can insert sentences expressing what they are grateful for (little things which they experience every day)

Providing a safe haven

It is important to find time to listen when a child wants to talk without pushing it. Sometimes pupils will not want to talk – they might be in a hibernation state or they may have coped with the stress and do not want to come back to it. Avoid making assumptions about students’ experiences and let them know that you are available to talk, if needed. Building a ‘class contract’ with clear rules, which can be applied in crisis situations in the classroom can be useful. Try to be flexible and agile as much as possible. As with all difficult topics, teachers should be aware of the emotional impact the events have on students so they need to pay close attention to students who may have family members in conflict regions and who might be worried about how this crisis might impact them here. Teachers need to provide a safe venue for students to process, ask questions and be given context to understand current events as they happen. Noticing students’ strengths, their pride in their culture, their resilience, and the contributions they make to the school community seems to be also very beneficial.

Building emotional resilience

It is a very demanding situation for all of us and nobody, especially teachers will manage to handle the whole range of problems they have been facing without taking care of their own personal resources. In stressful situations we need a lot of good energy to support our system and our emotions. It is extremely important to learn how to build emotional resilience, sometimes called emotional agility which is the ability to bounce back emotionally from stressful situations. First of all, accept the feelings and thoughts that come up – all of them are important, even those difficult ones. Acceptance helps to deal with difficult matters. Avoid cognitive traps (mental errors) such as catastrophic thinking (expecting the worst possible outcome and believing you won’t cope with it as it occurs) or tunnelling (paying attention only to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positive.) Stop hanging in your thoughts, live in the moment, appreciate little things and control things you can control. It will give you a sense of agency.

It is essential to remember that there can be no helping others without self-care and self-compassion. Allow yourself to ask for help and believe in goodness.

Want to learn more? Watch the “Teaching and learning in the face of conflict” webinar recording.

 

References

Jüttemann, G. (2013). The Evolution of the Psyche in the History of Humanity (ed.). Lengerich: Pabst Science.

https://www.who.int/activities/ensuring-a-coordinated-and-effective-mental-health-response-in-emergencies

 


Alicja Gałązka is a Professor at the University of Silesia, a psychotherapist, psychologist, linguist, a licensed coach, and an international teacher trainer.

A President of ICI (International Coaching Institute) in Poland and a head of the Language Centre FUTURE in Poland, she is an author of over 300 articles published in Polish and English. She is also the creator of a Future Learning System language teaching methodology, based on cognitive and positive psychology and process drama.

An active member of IDEA, National Drama Association and IATEFL and co-author of
“Process drama for second language teaching and learning-a toolkit for developing language and life skills”, (Bloomsbury, 2021), her main interest is in psychology and drama in the ELT classroom.

Professor Gałązka is a coordinator and participant in many international projects, including two Special Interest Groups, Psychology in ELT and Drama in ELT in IATEFL, Poland. A regional adviser for Trinity College London in Poland, Alicja works across two main sectors: Medicine and Education. She actively works with teachers, school managers and pupils on developing their wellbeing and resilience.


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How to understand and teach adolescents effectively | OUP

Do you remember when you were a teenager, arguing with your parents, thinking that adults ‘just don’t get it’! It’s a typical behaviour, it’s a stage that we all go through (well, most of us anyway)!

Adolescence is the phase of life between late childhood and early adulthood. It is a time not only of physical maturation but also of mental and emotional development. The major developmental tasks of adolescence include the establishment and nurturing of intimate relationships and the development of identity, independence, self-confidence, self-control, and social skills.

The Psychology

The beginning of adolescence is loosely anchored to the onset of puberty, which brings alterations in hormone levels and a number of consequent physical changes. Puberty onset is also associated with profound changes in drives, motivations, psychology, and social life; these changes continue throughout adolescence. New findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveal that a fundamental reorganization of the brain takes place in adolescence. In postnatal brain development, the maximum density of grey matter is reached first in the primary sensorimotor cortex, and the prefrontal cortex matures last.

Subcortical brain areas, especially the limbic system and the reward system, develop earlier, so that there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. This may account for typical adolescent behaviour patterns, including risk-taking. Developmentally, adolescents also tend to be more impulsive and emotional—they are more inclined to make impulsive decisions, engage in impulsive behaviour, and act recklessly compared to adults.

Adolescence is a time of amazing creativity, intensive emotionality, social engagement but also a time of taking risky decisions and behaviour. How can we use this capacity as teachers?

Seize the opportunity

First of all, we need to see the potential of this period of life of our students and treat it as an opportunity, not a curse. As teachers, we can take advantage of teenagers’ risky mindset to help them perform better at school and achieve better results. Risk taking and selecting difficult tasks is associated with having a growth mindset. Teachers can guide this risky behaviour by encouraging pupils to take chances in a safe and secure environment, the students could face more challenges without a fear of failure. It is extremely important to provide an environment for teenagers where they feel safe to make mistakes and explore reality without being criticised.

Working with teenagers may also be difficult because many of them cannot cope with emotions and they experience teen depression or social anxiety syndrome. Sometimes it is difficult for a teacher to understand that irritable or apathetic adolescents might be experiencing depression. Teenagers easily develop feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, often they are oversensitive to their peers’ opinions and how they perceive to be perceived.

We all know that most teens may feel unhappy and withdrawn at times as their moods swing unpredictably, but if you notice that your student’s unhappiness lasts more than two weeks and he or she displays other symptoms, it is necessary to react and seek a professional help. Teens with depression will have a noticeable change in their thinking and behaviour. They may have no motivation to learn or do anything, difficulty with concentration and memory loss. You may also see such symptoms as apathy, difficulty with making decisions, irresponsible behaviour, sadness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and regular complaints of pains (headaches, stomach-aches), and compulsive overeating.

What can we do as teachers? Firstly be understanding, supportive, and patient. There is nothing more important for a teenager as having a supportive adult. Teachers play a vital role in this developmental period because often teenagers are more likely to listen to them than their parents who are perceived as enemies. Teachers should utilise their need for creative exploration and novelty by running interesting, engaging, and inclusive lessons; allowing students to explore and build their sense of autonomy and internal locus of control. Providing a psychological safety and inclusive climate in the classroom helps teenagers learn. Investing in positive relations with teenagers will improve learning outcomes. Remember that teenagers will not learn from teachers they dislike!  

Interested in this topic? Missed November’s webinar? Click here to catch-up and watch the recording!


Alicja Gałązka is a psychologist, linguist, ICI Vice President for Coaching in Poland, trainer and international educator. Lecturer and researcher in the university setting, and in multiple private institutions. A graduate of the University of Silesia and the School of Education at the University of Exeter, UK. Alicja is also a speaker and trainer in the field of international communication, creative thinking and problem solving, the development of social and emotional intelligence and the optimization of each individual’s potential, drama etc. She is also a regular event speaker for Oxford University Press Poland!