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Helping children manage pandemic anxiety

24 November 2021, Impact of Our Work

How Save the Children’s programs helped kids develop strong coping mechanisms

In Melbourne, children have now lived through six lockdowns. Between remote learning, masks and social distancing they’ve had to navigate a new world. It’s not been easy on them, but programs like Save the Children’s Journey of Hope have helped children put words to their fears and dreams. And programs like Cubbies and Family Learning Club have kept them engaged in learning and healthy play.
Alyssa Gissara delivered the Journey of Hope program in Victoria for schools in areas previously affected by bushfires and floods. As the pandemic took hold the program expanded to include schools in the Melbourne suburbs of Fitzroy, Dallas and Essendon. The eight-week program supports students to talk about their feelings and develop positive coping mechanisms.   
“For the last 18 months, children have been exposed to enormous amounts of ever-changing information about the threat to their health, their families, and the health system,” Alyssa explains. “For some, their anxiety will be proportionate to the threat. For Victorian children who have suffered through six lockdowns, a pre-existing level of fear has already been established.”

In Fitzroy, before we went into our sixth lockdown, I saw primary school students wear masks to school. They didn’t take them off for a whole day. Fear and anxiety were ever-present in the classroom. Mostly there was the fear of another lockdown. Home isn’t always a safe place where remote learning can take place.


What children feared the most

During the lockdowns, schools were closed and playgrounds restricted. Many children who lived in urban areas found their world closing in on them. “A lot of these children live in homes or apartments, without access to appropriate play spaces or adequate technology to facilitate remote learning. Many of their parents speak a second language, and can’t support them with their learning,” says Alyssa.
“The kids were scared of being isolated, of not being able to see their friends, and they’re scared of COVID too. They asked me questions I didn’t have answers to. “Am I going to be stuck at home again? Am I going to be locked up? Am I going to be able to see my friends?”
Children in the City of Yarra told us that too, in a recent co-design work we did with them for Communities that Care. “Remote learning is finally starting to take a toll. It is becoming difficult putting up with it for so long,” said one child.
“In this pandemic, because we are stuck at home, it takes a toll on our mental health when we don't do our normal routines and not seeing other people,” said another 12-year-old.

How Save the Children made a difference     

Journey of Hope gives students a safe space to talk about their fears and support for dealing with them. It’s a place where they can talk freely without worrying about being judged or not passing standardised testing. In short, it’s a life saver.
In a recent evaluation of the program, we surveyed more than 500 students who took part across the 77 schools where the program was delivered in NSW and Victoria. Ninety-two per cent said they felt better after taking part. A majority of students also said that they put into practice what they learned in the program and that the program made them feel better about coming to school.

“Without programs like Journey of Hope, there aren’t many spaces where children are seen and heard for who they are,” says Alyssa. “Teachers just don’t have the time. There's not enough time in a teacher's week to facilitate social and emotional learning. I know from experience it's just not physically possible, alongside all the other curriculum requirements they have to meet.”

“While what we do in the program is confidential, we can refer students if we think they or someone else is at (risk of) harm. We have alerted schools to students who weren’t being seen, and who weren’t being flagged as being in need.”
At Cubbies, Save the Children staff kept children who would otherwise be engaged in their afterschool activities entertained at home with at-home learning resources and ideas for solo activities. At Family Learning Club, we also gave students a special learning chair from our corporate partner Steelcase. The home learning environment can be challenging with lack of a dedicated working space for those in smaller homes. Giving children a space of their own to conduct remote learning helped motivate and excite them.
We’ve found a high percentage of children reporting low emotional wellbeing. The impacts of six lockdowns haven’t gone away. But by sharing their experiences they were able to identify their needs and highlight how to move forward in rebuilding their communities.
With preventative supports like that delivered at Cubbies and early intervention programs like Journey of Hope, that focus on the emotional wellbeing of children, they have a higher chance of coming out of the world’s longest lockdown with a strong voice, hope and self-determination.

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