Return to Happiness (RTH) is a psychosocial recovery programme developed by UNICEF to help children and adolescents build resilience and positive coping skills in response to emergencies by taking a culturally relevant, community-based approach, including the use of the arts as a therapeutic tool. During COVID-19, UNICEF is supporting RTH training to help teachers prepare mentally for the reopening of schools and to use these same techniques to then help their students. Simone White, a special needs teacher from Mico Practising Primary and Junior High with Special Education Unit in Kingston was one of 224 teachers who participated in the first set of trainings.
Children missing the safety of their schools
Last term, every time we had devotion, I had a little boy in my class who kept asking, “God, please let the coronavirus go. I want it to go right now because I want to go back to school. I want to see my teacher, my friends, I want to play, I want to be able to go outside.”
Today, I am sitting here with empty desks when normally we would be talking and having fun learning together. Instead, I can only see the class through a computer screen. I have mixed feelings about not seeing them face-to-face, hearing them laugh, watching them play and answering their questions.
School is also a safe place for children. Many persons don’t fully understand that sometimes some of these children are living in homes where they might be physically or verbally abused. In school, when they can talk to their teachers, talk to their friends, talk to the guidance counsellor about anything that is happening, they feel secure, they feel safe.
Pressure on teachers to mitigate learning loss
Reopening is going to put a lot of pressure on teachers. Having some children coming to class who don’t know letter sounds, some don’t know numbers, some forgot the basic things about their personal information – to get all those things across for them to learn the teachers will have to work harder.
When I first heard about the ‘Return to Happiness’ training I was thinking how can we do that with what’s happening now? Having done this training, I am at a happy place and ready for return to school. Last year I would have been hesitant, but I have learned so many things and can tap into my emotional awareness and the cognitive awareness of the children.
The first week of school I will use what the training taught me in the mornings is to give them some grounding and relaxation exercises, which can be used to centre or ground oneself. It helps you to concentrate and connect with your surrounding; and become more aware. Sometimes when people are stressed it is because the brain is still registering that a threat is around and therefore you become anxious or nervous. But when you are grounded you become more aware of your surroundings, which will help to diffuse the stress or affirm that you are in a safe space. The grounding is also coupled with relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, to help prepare your minds. I hope to use these techniques to help get students back to a happy place in life where they can be comfortable with learning.
Training has given me new tools to help children
So many children have lost so much. As a special educator the gap we are here to deal with is getting wider and so will the pressure. Many of these students come to us not knowing the letters of the alphabet, the sounds, and numbers. And some parents may give up or get frustrated – and this is where abuse might come in both physically and verbally. It’s going to affect the child emotionally because some persons are going to be like ‘you dunce man, you don’t know nutten’. So, you must think about the child’s mental health and that of the teacher who must be prepared to help and that goes for me too.
My class is very new, with ages ranges from 7 to 9 years old and it’s mix because of learning disabilities. All of my students are working below the expected grade level. I have a class of non-readers, they can identify a few sight words, but they cannot read. But it’s for me now to bring them up to speed. Thankfully though, I can say I am prepared mentally to return to school.
I am hoping that very soon we are all going to return to face-to-face school and return to happiness. I just want to ensure these children are learning again.
What is UNICEF doing?
Return To Happiness training was delivered by the Jamaica Teaching Council (JTC) and the UWI Department of Social Work, supported by UNICEF. For information on upcoming training activities, please contact Allison Cooke-Hawthorne, Senior Director, Professional Development at the JTC: firstname.lastname@example.org