Emotional vaccine: 3 ways we can move from ‘languishing’ to ‘flourishing’ in these testing times

Dougal Sutherland, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

If you’re feeling uninspired, stagnant and joyless, you’re not alone. A sense of languishing is one of the dominant emotions of 2021 as we navigate life in an ongoing pandemic and process other terrible world events alongside.

But although many people are struggling and these struggles are not to be ignored, the pandemic has also provided a chance to flourish — functioning well and feeling good, with a sense that life is meaningful and worthwhile, despite challenging circumstances.

Flourishing operates at the top end of the mental health continuum, with languishing at the bottom end.

A separate but related continuum relates to the experience of mental illness symptoms (from zero to severe). Key to this thinking is that mental health (languishing versus flourishing) and mental illness are independent from each other, and it is possible to flourish with mental illness symptoms and vice versa.

Recently published Stats NZ data provide an overview of New Zealanders’ well-being during the pandemic and conclude:

New Zealanders have remained resilient, with most people remaining happy, healthy and satisfied with their lives, despite the challenges [of the pandemic].

For Māori in New Zealand, who generally experience disproportionate rates of poor mental health compared to other groups, recent research highlights that positive outcomes following the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown were nearly as frequent as adverse ones.

So, here are three strategies we can use to acknowledge the languishing but nevertheless move towards more experiences of flourishing.

1. Hold the ‘and’

Holding the “and” is a psychological practice commonly used in several therapies, including dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). At its simplest, DBT encourages a balance between opposites.

Often, when we are coping with difficult experiences we fall into a habit of “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinking and we find it hard to see the grey. Lockdowns and the Delta variant are good examples of challenges where we might find it hard to see a balance between both extremes, oscillating between thinking “things will never get back to normal” or “everything is fine”.

Holding the “and” in this scenario might look like acknowledging that our normal is being disrupted right now, and knowing that we have the tools to make it through in one piece. This style will give you permission and encouragement to feel frustrated and grateful, angry with moments of calm, and cautiously optimistic while feeling scared.

2. Practice active acceptance

When we have some ability to influence or control a situation, active coping or problem-solving strategies are generally best. But this approach of taking charge is much less effective when we are managing in circumstances beyond our control, like the current pandemic.

Research shows a style of coping called “acceptance coping” results in significantly less distress during such times.

Importantly, acceptance isn’t a passive process. It’s not giving up. Rather, it’s reminding ourselves “this is how things are right now”. Psychologists call this helpful, active acceptance, as opposed to resigning acceptance.

Key steps to acceptance are to notice and acknowledge thoughts and feelings about a situation and then focus on what is important as we tackle the challenge. For example you may notice feeling sad, allow yourself to experience that emotion (acceptance) and then focus on something that is important for that day, for example dialling into a team meeting to check on colleagues.

3. Connect with others

A third strategy that helps nudge us towards flourishing is connecting with others. In our world of physical distancing, the good news is that with connection, it’s quality over quantity. The benefits of being with others come largely from the emotional connection you make with another person.

Significant research has shown that experiencing frequent positive emotions (hope, joy and achievement) help people stay resilient and thrive even in times of crisis. Recent studies show co-experienced positive emotions – the good feelings you get when you really connect with someone – may be even more important than positive emotions experienced alone.

In even more compelling evidence, recent research examining more than one hundred risk factors for mental illness found that social connection was the strongest protective factor against depression. Finding ways of feeling connected with people in your bubble, as well as staying connected online with others, is one of the best strategies.

These key strategies of balance, acceptance and connection help us to move from languishing towards flourishing. Focusing on practising these skills may serve as a psychological vaccine in these pandemic times.

Gaynor Parkin and Dr Amanda Wallis, from Umbrella Wellbeing, have both contributed to this article.

Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 activities for connecting students who are learning from home

Can’t do the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon because your school is in lockdown? Here are 5 alternative activities that you can do remotely.

Now, more than ever, kids and young adults need opportunities to connect.

The Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon is, at its core, about connectedness. The conversation cards in the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon tool kit (provided free to schools who register) can be used in different ways to help students build a sense of connection and belonging.

These activities enable you to still take part in this year’s Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon. Think of it instead as a Connect-A-Thon. 

Idea 1: Students discover new things about their family

Lockdown is the perfect opportunity to get to know the people you live with better. When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a family member?

Ask your students to choose three or four of the conversation cards, and find a suitable time to discuss the questions with a family member. They could go for a walk, or even use the conversation starters as discussion points with their family at dinner time.

Younger children may need support from their parents to facilitate the conversations. But parents will most likely enjoy the conversation prompts too, and discussing the topics with their kids.

Idea 2: Students connect online

You could use the conversation cards before you start an online lesson with your students. You can take part too – connecting with students as individuals and human beings, not only as learners, goes a long way to building their sense of self and belonging. And it makes teachers more human too.

If you check in with your students one at a time, you may like to use some of the conversation starters to commence the conversation.

Another option is setting up a video call, like Zoom, with a small group of students specifically to connect using the conversation starter cards. Zoom offers breakout rooms too, for smaller group sessions, but make sure you’re aware of your school’s rules for using video conferencing  before you schedule a meeting.

Idea 3. Students reflect on walking and talking and create footprint art

Students can go on a walk with a family member or a friend (if allowed under the restrictions in your area). After the walk, you could invite them to reflect on how they felt and what the learned during the walk.

You could ask them to express their ideas as a footprint, either creating their own shape or using the template in the digital toolkit. You may like to collate the footprints into a presentation or visual representation of your students’ experiences, bringing the individual walks together virtually.

We have included a footprint template in the digital tool kit, available free when you register for the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon.

Idea 4: Students take part in an interactive quiz

Consider using an online platform, like Kahoot, to run a ‘get to know each other’ quiz. You could set up a quiz using the questions on our conversation cards – or make up your own. You might choose to do this with smaller groups of students to encourage interaction. 

As the teacher, you could host a facilitated conversation where you draw out students responses. We recommend inviting each student to respond to each question. It might be helpful to explore the differences and similarities of each student’s answer. Draw links and help them make the connections.   For example, “Did you know Mohammed has a pet fish called Dory?  Who else has had a pet fish and did it have a name?”

Idea 5: Students come up with their own connection project

Invite students to consider what connection means to them. Who are the people they feel most connected to? Who else do they feel some connection to, like other people in the community or relatives who live far away? Are there people they would like to feel more connected to? What are some ways you can build connection?

Empower students to think of their own activity for building their sense of connectedness. Perhaps they could call a cousin they haven’t spoken to for a while. Or they could write a letter to someone in their class. Or they could write a story or draw a picture of someone who is important to them and explain why.

Consider all the people you connect with over the course of the day especially while you are teaching and learning remotely. All these connections – with siblings, carers, peers — contribute significantly to our sense of belonging and importantly to our sense of self. Bringing these connections into our conscious mind is important in fostering wellbeing.

Your students will be able develop their understanding of these issues further by participating our new Belonging module as part of the Peer Support Program.

Find out more about the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon here or register your school and we will be in touch to discuss how your school can adapt the event to suit you.

How to support student wellbeing in lockdown

This article was first published in The Conversation.

Nicole (Nikki) Brunker, University of Sydney

We all know the challenges lockdowns are creating for our children during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, providing effective support for their social and emotional wellbeing may help us look beyond fears to the possibility of making gains during this interruption to our familiar lives.

Social and emotional wellbeing relates to the ability to understand ourselves, and others, and to manage life’s challenges. This calls for skills such as being able to:

  • understand and engage with our emotions and the emotions of others
  • form and build positive relationships
  • take on and persist with challenges.

Wellbeing is a broad concept that encompasses the individual and their context, recognising variation among children. It’s crucial to remember well-being is a process of both experience and development, so skills vary with age and circumstances.

Wellbeing is greatest cost of lockdowns

Loss of wellbeing was shown to be the greatest cost of lockdowns for students schooling from home in 2020.

The experience of schooling during lockdown varies, but the greatest impact is that it makes existing inequities worse. The lives of too many children and young people are filled with enormous difficulty and limited opportunities. This was the case before lockdown, but the problem has grown.

Schools continue to work tirelessly to meet students’ needs. It is important to recognise there are social issues that require extensive work beyond schooling.

Developing skills helps with well-being

The individual aspect of social and emotional well-being involves the ongoing development of key skills. These skills have been variously termed soft skills, 21st-century skills, general capabilities, and dispositions. These skills grow and develop as our life experience expands and the challenges we encounter become more complex.

The benefits of developing social and emotional wellbeing are important in themselves. However, research has long shown the benefits extend to academic learning.

Wellbeing skills have been recognised as helping students with schooling during lockdown. Self-organisation, autonomy and adaptability enable students to thrive during lockdown. Schooling during lockdown also provides an opportunity to develop these skills in the context of life’s other challenges.

What can we do to support children’s wellbeing?

What can we do to support our children’s wellbeing in lockdown and beyond through the pandemic?

1. Focus on the potential gains.

We don’t simply “bounce back” from adversity; we need to be able to move forward by supporting our children to work with the challenge of adversity. This includes adults in their lives modelling how to do that, which helps children develop the skills to cope with further adversity that they will inevitably face in their lives.

Research is not showing learning loss through schooling under lockdown, as the latest NAPLAN results also indicate. It is showing gains can be made by working with the situation.

2. Look after our own wellbeing.

Remember the oxygen mask principle – we need to take care of ourselves to be able to support our children’s well-being. Children develop the skills to self-regulate – that is, they learn to understand and manage their own emotions – when supported through co-regulation with adults. We can only do that when we are taking care of our own well-being.

Airline safety brochure showing how adults must fit their own oxygen mask first before helping chldren
The oxygen mask principle: you must first take care of yourself so you are able to take care of others. Calle Macarone/Unsplash

3. Attend to daily essentials for all.

Play, exercise, get outdoors, socialise and monitor engagement with news media. Each of these activities will look different from what we would choose outside of lockdown, and there are lots of possibilities.

Engaging in unfamiliar ways of doing our everyday activities builds our wellbeing by developing our ability to be flexible in our thinking and adapt to changing situations.

4. Develop personal skills.

Key skills include self-organisation, autonomy, flexible thinking and adaptability. Well-being is learned through explicit approaches, life experiences and modelling.

We can support children by helping with routines and organisation to enable them to not be overwhelmed.

At the same time, encourage independence through activities they complete without you, such as a Lego challenge. Some other simple things to do include: encourage reading, play board games, promote creative (tech-free) play and teach simple strategies to cope with stress such as the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding technique.

5. Adjust expectations to the situation.

As we adapt to the circumstances, our expectations need to adapt. Kids will have more screen time for schooling, socialising and, yes, gaming, which will support their wellbeing.

Kids will get distracted, have ebbs and flows in motivation, won’t complete everything for school, will refuse to do some things and will need to take time away from schooling. Give space for this to be acceptable. Remember to model how you manage your own distractions and other responses to working in this different context.

Also, stress looks different in kids. They might be rude, defiant, angry and avoid doing things – even the things they love.

The dominant approach to children’s behaviour at home and school is reward and punishment. It induces a stress response to trigger change in behaviour, so only escalates the stress our children are experiencing now.

Talk and listen to each other’s concerns to find solutions. Recognise when things aren’t a priority for now, such as cleaning their bedroom every week.

There is room for us to gain from the experience of lockdown. We might just need to shift our focus.

Nicole (Nikki) Brunker, Lecturer in Education, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.