With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting virtually every person in the world, the effects of the virus, the impact of interventions put in place to control the spread of the virus, and the impact on personal and the world’s economies have had a massive effect on how we live our lives. As a result, the pandemic situation has potential to impact our mental health negatively, so it is important to be aware of these effects and to consider how we can overcome the negative stressors. An apt term for coping with negative life events and challenges is “resilience”.
A number of organisations offer advice on how to promote resilience and they generally have common themes on offering strategies for people to take. These themes/approaches include:
Build positive relationships
Self awareness and self care
Attention and focus
Let's take a look at each of these strategies and what families and the school can do employ these strategies:
1. Build positive relationships
The American Psychological Association [APA] recommends that “connecting with empathetic and understanding people can remind you that you’re not alone in the midst of difficulties. Focus on finding trustworthy and compassionate individuals who validate your feelings, which will support the skill of resilience.”(Palmiter et al.) In Macau, we are fortunate that we have been able to return to face-to-face classes at school. This allows the opportunity for staff and families to connect and share this experience together. Teachers build strong relationships with their students which provides the opportunity for students to share their feelings and seek support from their teachers.
In addition, Highly Effective Teacher.com states: “A focus on the importance of positive teacher/student [relationships] enhances student wellbeing and achievement. A meta-analysis of 99 studies showed that student teacher relationships were linked to student engagement and achievement (Roorda et al, 2011) and a positive relationship with one caring adult can change the trajectory for even the most at risk student (Anderson, et al, 2004).” (Amaro). Another avenue that can address positive relationships is via the Teacher Advisor Program [TAP] in secondary school, the MACE program in elementary school and the Flight curriculum in Kindergarten, all of which contain a focus on students building positive relationships. TIS also uses collaborative learning strategies to enhance student relationships.
2. Self awareness and self care
Becoming aware of our mental state is important for building resilience. Managing editor of the website Greater Good, Kira M. Newman, suggests “Without judgment or analysis, notice what you’re feeling. Say, “This is a moment of suffering” or “This hurts” or “This is stress.”
At TIS, from kindergarten onward, children are taught about the “Zones of regulation”, where they can learn to identify their emotional level and learn to place their emotional level on a continuum of severity. Once the emotional level has been identified, both the student and teacher are in a much better position to move forward and address reducing levels of stress.
Educational consultant, Marie Amaro, states “peer relationships [can be improved] by explicitly teaching skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. From kindergarten through to high school these skills are a focus for all children and are explicitly addressed via the TAP and MACE programs.
Newman also suggests that “being more aware of our bodies—and the emotions they are feeling—might also help us make healthier choices . . . When stress creeps in, good habits often creep out—and one of those is healthy eating.” This addresses the concept of self care, both mentally and physically. The APA states “stress is just as much physical as it is emotional. Promoting positive lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, ample sleep, hydration, and regular exercise can strengthen your body to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.”
With the TIS Activist in Residence program focusing this year on sustainable environmental practices, making healthy eating choices by considering a more vegetarian-based diet assists in raising students’ awareness of having a healthy diet. In addition, the Physical Education and Health program throughout the school addresses the importance of regular exercise, nutrition and sleep. In order to stay well hydrated students are encouraged to bring a water bottle to their classes.
3. Attention and focus
A Cornell University website, “Cornell Health”, states “attention allows you to tune out information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that is important.” This goes hand in hand with the psychology of positive thinking. If students focus their attention on the teaching and learning during classes, with a mindset of opportunity for growth, it leaves less room for the negative influences to take root and grow larger.
The APA suggests that to build resilience one should “develop some realistic goals and do something regularly—even if it seems like a small accomplishment—that enables you to move toward with the things you want to accomplish. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” Setting short-term process oriented goals of this nature will not only take one’s mind off of the negative pressures, but will also focus attention on moving forward in self-improvement.
These goals may also address some of the negative pressures that we may be experiencing. Taking a positive approach toward solving or reducing some of the negative influences can be productive in building resilience. “When dealing with a challenge, optimists typically look at what they can do to fix the problem. Instead of giving up hope, they marshal their resources and are willing to ask others for help.”(Palmiter, et al.)
Researchers have also found that in the wake of a crisis, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, positive thoughts and emotions encourage thriving and provide a sort of buffer against depression among resilient people. . . . By nurturing positive emotions, even in the face of terrible events, people can reap both short-term and long-term rewards, including managing stress levels, lessening depression, and building coping skills that will serve them well in the future. . . . positive thinkers will look at the situation realistically, search for ways that they can improve the situation, and try to learn from their experiences.(Cherry)
The APA suggests the following:
“Accept that change is a part of life. Certain goals or ideals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations in your life. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. . . . An optimistic outlook empowers you to expect that good things will happen to you. . . .
Learn from your past. By looking back at who or what was helpful in previous times of distress, you may discover how you can respond effectively to new difficult situations.”(Palmiter, et al.)
Marie Amaro’s website suggests that having a strong connection with school is a strong protective factor for health and academic outcomes for all students.
TIS seeks to achieve a positive learning environment by allowing students to have a voice, and seeks to ensure that all students feel physically and emotionally safe, hence, building a strong school connection. Attention is focused on classroom activities each day and student participation during lessons is expected and encouraged. House teams are designed to build community not just within a class or grade level, but to connect students across the entire school. Students are encouraged to set both long-term and short term-process goals throughout the school year to provide focus. Joining after school sports teams and clubs also builds a sense of belonging and community building, along with focusing positive energy toward achieving shared experience or goal.
4. Finding meaning
“Finding meaning is the act of making sense of - and exploring the significance of - an experience or situation. Research shows that cultivating a sense of meaning in your life can contribute to more positive mental health than pursuing happiness.” (Cornell Health) This website goes on to suggest ways one can find meaning, one of which is:” Find ways to help others.” The APA also suggests that “some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based communities, or other local organizations [that] provide social support can help you reclaim hope.”(Palmiter, et al.)
The TIS mission statement explicitly addresses the importance of ‘meaning’. “In a safe, caring and welcoming environment, our mission is to develop socially responsible, life long learners able to problem solve, think critically, and make positive changes in our global community”. Programs such as: Activist in Residence, Experience Week, CAS, secondary school student Volunteer team, classroom projects and activities all provide avenues where students can actively participate in supporting the communities at school and in Macau.
The COVID-19 epidemic has impacted us greatly, but if we all continue to strive toward building resilience, we can all learn more about ourselves and how to better cope with adversity in the future. We are committed to working together as a community to help each other through this situation, and in the end, become stronger as a result.
Amaro, Marie. “How To Promote Resilience In Your Students.” The Highly Effective Teacher, 29 Sept. 2016, thehighlyeffectiveteacher.com/how-to-promote-resilience-in-your-students/.
“Building Resilience.” Cornell Health, Cornell University, health.cornell.edu/resources/health-topics/building-resilience.
Cherry, Kendra. “How Can Positive Thinking Benefit Your Mind and Body?” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, 1 June 2020, www.verywellmind.com/benefits-of-positive-thinking-2794767.
Newman, Kira M. “Five Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience.” Greater Good, Nov. 2016, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/fivesciencebackedstrategiestobuildresilience.
“Our Mission.” The International School of Macao: 澳門國際學校, 12 June 2020, tis.edu.mo/about/mission.
Palmiter, David, et al. “Building Your Resilience.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2012, www.apa.org/about/contact.