Teachers are key in protecting students' mental health during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Telephone psychosocial support for students and their families.
Thanks to a methodology developed by UNICEF Ecuador, teacher Luis Carlos Anchico (47) has been able to support the mental health and psychosocial well-being of his students through phone and video calls during the COVID-19 emergency.
Santo Domingo, Ecuador - The alarm on his cell phone and the meowing of his little cat Geronimo woke up teacher Luis Carlos to begin his daily routine. Before starting another day of teaching, Luis prepared his favorite herbal tea of lemongrass and then fed his pet.
Like many other teachers, Luis replaced the classroom with a corner of the living room in his home in the city of Santo Domingo, Ecuador. There, he placed his desk, his work material and decorated the wall with a green background and images referring to digital teaching.
To contact his students and follow up with each one of them, Luis’s only options are telephone calls, video calls and, on some occasions, home visits.
School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected 4.3 million students in Ecuador, putting their learning, development, and mental health at risk.
Maintaining contact between teachers and students has been a priority, not only to drive learning forward, but also to know how students are doing in general, to support them in difficult times and support their overall well-being.
To this end, Luis was part of a group of 1,200 teachers that reinforced their knowledge and abilities to provide psychosocial support to their students by telephone. This methodology was created for UNICEF with the support of the Student Counseling Department (DECE). During this process, the teachers learned basic techniques for empathic listening to students and families, how to provide emotional support and how to identify and respond to ‘at risk’ cases that require specialized attention.
“I called Brithany (11), one of my students, to see how she was doing. I was curious that she didn’t turn in her homework on time and I asked her if everything was okay. She told me that her grandmother was sick, and she hadn’t been able to finish her homework," said the teacher.
Brithany's words were a warning sign for Luis. He realized that the girl needed extra support. Her grandmother is the one in charge of her care and education. In previous calls, he had already noticed that the family was not going through a good time economically, like many other families affected by the pandemic. So, without hesitation, the teacher decided to visit Brithany at her home.
"There are children who are going through situations that we are unaware of. We, as teachers, through a phone call or a home visit -because many of them have no access to internet- can help them in some way. Some families have gone through very difficult economic situations and we may not be able to help them financially, but we can support them emotionally," added Luis.
The teacher got on his motorcycle and proceeded to his destination: his student's house. He made a stop at the market to bring her some fruit. Meanwhile, Brithany was busy feeding the chickens and finishing up lunch for her grandmother.
When the teacher knocked on the door, Brithany greeted him effusively and invited him in. Luis first spoke with Narcisa, the girl's grandmother. He listened attentively to how her illness had forced her to stay in bed and she told him that for this reason Brithany was giving more attention to household chores than to school. Narcisa also shared her concerns stemming from the pandemic, such as the stress of confinement and the lack of money in the home.
After listening to the grandmother, Luis spent time explaining Brithany's homework to her. With the homework done, they spent some time making animal masks and then played with the masks making fun and energizing movements. Brithany felt that she was not alone and that she had the support of her teacher.
Brithany was happy to see her teacher after so much time. "The teach always asks me how I am, how is my grandmother and how I have been doing through this quarantine. I miss school a lot. It's not the same studying at home and I miss being with my classmates," said the girl.
The school is very close to Brithany's house. Both she and Luis can't wait to get back there and resume face-to-face classes. Many children's learning, mental health and psychosocial well-being are increasingly affected by the lack of interaction with teachers and peers. In Ecuador, 4 out of 10 students report feeling more anxious and stressed during the pandemic.
"I started three years ago with 30 children of fifth grade," the teacher commented. "At the beginning, only five of them could read. During these years they have all made great progress, including Brithany, who now writes and reads very well, and expresses her thoughts and emotions much better. Unfortunately, schooling at home cannot be compared to face-to-face education. The learning process is slower and supporting each student is even more complicated," commented the teacher.
The pandemic has taught Luis many lessons.
"This time away from the classroom has taught me that my job as a teacher goes beyond checking homework. The children need their overall well-being monitored. Many families go through difficult times and our support can be crucial. Empathy is key in this work," he concluded.
The COVID-19 emergency has not only resulted in school closures, it has also left millions of children and adolescents without support services such as mental health services and access to school counselors, which are critical, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty.
In Ecuador, by the date of August 19th of 2021, 6% of schools were already opened and 47,038 students were back to school. UNICEF considers it timely to promote the strengthening of mental health and psychosocial support services in education systems
Reopening schools cannot wait, children need to get their learning and the mental health and well-being back on track.