Journalist Tea Šojat published an article on the Zagreb Info portal entitled “COVID-19, strike and earthquake left consequences! Experts: ‘Some children show elements of PTSD. School success will be the least of the problems.” Expert interlocutors in the topic were the director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, professor Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD and Centers’ psychologist Ella Selak Bagarić:
Preparations for the start of the new school year are extremely stressful for teachers, professors, as well as for parents and children.
The working groups are trying to prepare everything for the beginning of the new school year, and a large number of teachers and professors have joined them, but there are a number of doubts that are not known whether they will be resolved by the very beginning of school.
Recently, the working groups mentioned the care for the mental health of children, but also school staff, so we talked to professor Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, psychologist and psychotherapist, founder and director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center and the Association for support to abused and neglected children “Brave Phone”, and also psychologist Ella Selak Bagarić, member of the Crisis Staff of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center.
Given that some schoolchildren experienced a series of traumas due to the turbulent events of last year (teachers’ strike, lockdown and earthquake), which left serious consequences for some, we now have the opportunity to better prepare to avoid traumatic experiences and children, and parents and teachers and professors.
What can we expect from the return of children to school in these new conditions?
Gordana Buljan Flander: Starting school or starting a new school year can be stressful for children even in a time without a pandemic, and it is especially demanding during all the measures that are currently in force. The coronavirus pandemic has already caused major changes in daily life, and children, especially those who are more vulnerable, are deeply reliving anything that changes their routine. While returning to school will be exciting for many students, it is certainly to be expected of numerous emotions during their return to school. If we do not take care of how the children are now, it is certain that in the future their school success will be the smallest problem we will deal with.
What will children need most?
Ella Selak Bagarić: It is known that social and emotional competencies are key to academic functioning and that they influence a child’s motivation and engagement. They are fostered by quality and supportive relationships in the school environment, which requires the interaction of both children with each other, and children and teachers. When we talk about the current circumstances, it is patience, support and understanding that children will need first.
What should be the priority of schools in preparation for the start of the school year?
Gordana Buljan Flander: Schools must prioritize the psychological well-being of the child, and the state must provide conditions for teachers to achieve this, primarily mental health professionals who will be available to teachers and children, but also parents, and help them adapt to newcomers circumstances, bearing in mind the still uncertainty of the whole situation and possible changes depending on the epidemiological situation.
We had the opportunity to hear how the lack of contact between peers, and even the school itself, had a negative impact on the children. How to organize it so that this component is not missing this time? Why does it matter?
Ella Selak Bagarić: In the first weeks, it is important to let the children talk and listen to what they say. Going back to school may be the first live contact students have had with each other in weeks. One thing students could lose during online classes is a sense of belonging to the school community and connection to others. An activity in which the whole class can participate can help restore a sense of connection. Coordinating relaxation time and unstructured activities are important to make the learning process more successful. Although structure, rhythm and responsibilities can certainly help to establish a sense of control in children, when they return or go to school in these circumstances we must be primarily sensitive to the challenges faced by each child both outside and inside the classroom walls.
Gordana Buljan Flander: Behind us is a stressful period, and quarantine could affect children’s mental health in many ways – which manifests itself through lethargy, anxiety, behavioral difficulties, aggression… Many children show impaired attention and concentration but also a decline in motivation to learning. Some children in Zagreb who experienced the culmination of earthquake stress events also show elements of PTSD.
How can parents help their children prepare for the ‘new normal’?
Gordana Buljan Flander: Parents can help their child feel more comfortable and secure by going to school by initiating a conversation about what the child cares about and letting him know that it is okay to feel anxious. What also helps is to familiarize children with the changes that will take place, and parents must first get clear instructions from the child’s school on what exactly children’s life in the classroom will look like. It is extremely important that children are given information about what they are allowed to do (eg what interactions with peers are okay) and not just about what they are not allowed to do (eg socializing without gaps in the hallways during holidays). What we noticed in our clinical work during the previous return of children to school during the COVID 19 pandemic is the lack of clear information and instructions, both for children and parents, which caused insecurity, fear and confusion and thus a sense of helplessness. Of course, this is then reflected in the school success itself.
The biggest shock could be the first-graders, who until recently played with their peers and did not have to keep their distance. How to prepare them, but also other schoolchildren, for the fact that they will not be able to have close contacts?
Ella Selak Bagarić: It is important to be honest – for example, to go through some changes that you can expect in school, such as wearing masks in the hallways. Children are also likely to be challenged to respect physical distance – so we need to encourage them to think of other ways to connect and stay connected with their peers, and outline what will still be possible. In conversation, we should try to focus them on what is positive – like that they will be able to see their friends and teachers and keep learning new things.
What is the role of parents and teachers? How should they be placed in new situations, in order to make it as easy as possible for children to adapt?
Gordana Buljan Flander: As children learn and observe important adults – including parents and teachers – it is important that adults manage their emotions well and stay calm, listen to children’s concerns, be available and open to talk with empathy and support. Teachers are likely to be aware of the complex and perhaps traumatic experiences their students have had over the past period, so it is important that their work schedule allows them to show children patience and flexibility but also support both learning and mental health.
Different students in the same class had different experiences during the pandemic period. They will also have different coping strategies and different resilience. Some children have experienced losses, such as death in the family, illness, or have parents who have lost their jobs. Regardless of the type of loss, they go through an adjustment process that involves a series of emotions that manifest in behavior. Many children and young people could not call their home the safest place during quarantine. These are children who witness domestic violence, who are abused, neglected, hungry or have lost their home in an earthquake.
Children have had a number of traumatic experiences in the last few months. What should you pay special attention to?
Ella Selak Bagarić: With the beginning of the school year, the key challenge will be to recognize the experiences of children, but also to provide assistance when those experiences are revealed. Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, and the range of stressful events experienced by all children, it is important to remember that this need could occur in relation to any child, not just children previously identified as vulnerable.
Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the signs of stress in children. At what point should parents turn for help and to whom?
Gordana Buljan Flander and Ella Selak Bagarić: It is important that parents of school children recognize the signs of stress (leaflet) and get information to whom they can turn for help in their community. We recommend the platform “Podrška na dlanu”, which can be found on the official website of the City of Zagreb, which offers a number of resources aimed at strengthening resilience and finding help. ”
Source: Zagreb Info: https://www.zagreb.info/hrvatska/korona-strajk-i-potres-ostavili-posljedice-strucnjakinje-neka-djeca-pokazuju-elemente-ptsp-a-skolski-uspjeh-bit-ce-najmanji-problem/277518/
Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.