How we created connection while students were physically disconnected

Article by Kath Woolcock​ - Deputy Head of Senior School
Camberwell Girls Grammar School / 01 July 2020

In recognising the challenges that the COVID-19 situation presented for young people, expert Dannielle Miller designed the bite-sized wellbeing course ‘Creating Connection when Physically Disconnected’. All Camberwell Girls Grammar School parents, carers and teachers were given the opportunity to engage with the course and to gain an understanding of the ways in which we could support connection, socialisation and belonging when during the period of isolation. The course discussed the need to facilitate very real, positive and meaningful connections, while also encouraging our young people to think altruistically, that is, thinking of others and looking beyond self with kindness, compassion and gratitude.

Perhaps one of the most useful aspects of the course was the focus on the art of conversation, an essential component of genuine exchange whether it be on virtual platforms or face to face. Here, Dannielle discussed the notion of asking questions, showing empathy and expressing real emotions — including joy, hope, fear, uncertainty and happiness — all very valid feelings during this time. Later in the course, Dannielle discussed the inevitable conflict that may results from social interactions either during social isolation, upon return, or indeed later in life and she provided a very useful and practical 10 step plan to help girls resolve conflict respectfully.

Dannielle also recognised that in recent times there has been an increase in mental health issues for young people, as a result of both greater awareness but also a greater willingness to seek help. She also pointed out that it is likely that these issues and experiences may be exacerbated during the COVID-19 situation, and with this, she provided some strategies and suggestions for parents on how to best support their daughters. As part of this, Dannielle explored how and when to refer young people onto health care professionals and how to support those who have friends or peers with mental health concerns.

In finishing the course, Dannielle offered some suggestions about how parents could regularly conduct wellbeing checks for their daughters, and it is this message that I think is most valuable for parents moving forward. Wellbeing check-ins are a valuable tool for parents and educators not only during difficult times, but also on an ongoing basis. These conversations help us to connect, to make conversations around wellbeing the norm and help to establish life-long behaviours of self-care, which should form part our daily routine. Dannielle suggested a number of questions that we can ask young people daily, including:

  • Who am I connecting with today?
  • What positive affirmation am I practicing using today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What acts of kindness am I choosing to do for others today?

The question for Camberwell Girls Grammar School, and for schools across Australia and internationally, is how do we translate the lessons learnt as we look to support students transitioning back to face-to-face learning amid the continuing uncertainty of the COVD-19 pandemic. As a school, we felt it was very important to be purposeful and intentional in our plans as we welcome students back on site and considered a three-stage process that would continue well beyond the first few days back on campus. This included gathering data, language and messaging, and purposefully designed wellbeing programs, all of which involved working in partnership with students, staff and parents.

Gathering data

As we prepared to welcome our community back to face-to-face learning, we sought feedback from our students and staff around returning to school, in particular: What were they looking forward to? What were their concerns? What support was needed? What were the silver linings that we wanted to hold onto? This data helped us to very intentionally create strategies, programs and actions that we could put in place to support both students and staff, including infographics and recommendations around wellbeing needs, prioritising relationships, fatigue, being strategic with assessment and homework, the notion of ‘less is more’, self-care, and validating the range of emotions experienced by all.

Language and messaging

As part of our approach, we felt it important to acknowledge that the transition back to school was a significant event for all, and one that was multifaceted and presented new challenges and opportunities. We worked with our staff, students and parents around how we could best support all members of our community during this time, and most importantly, what the students needed to help them to re-establish an effective and healthy school routine.

We asked our staff to model positivity and normalise the challenge, recognising that positive emotions such as hope and joy can help students to think and act creatively and with flexibility, and can also help to build social and psychological resources, especially resilience and grit. We also wanted our staff to let students know and communicate that it is okay to feel vulnerable, confused or concerned during this time, and these are appropriate responses to have. As part of this, we were very clear and intentional in encouraging the mantra of ‘less is more’ and giving them ‘permission’ to prioritise essential curriculum and learning, while letting our students and parents know that they were in an excellent learning position.

Purposefully designed wellbeing programs

In recognising the varying needs of our students, we redesigned our Year 7 – 12 wellbeing program to include a focus on hope, gratitude, connectedness and self-efficacy. These themes were purposefully chosen as research indicates that hope significantly and positively correlates with psychological wellbeing and coping in the face of adversity; Gratitude can lead to a greater sense of happiness and can help to shift the focus from the challenges we have been experiencing; Self-efficacy skills can enable us to draw on our strengths during difficult times; and connectedness is essential in helping students to feel known, valued and understood — moreover, social support networks are key in overcoming stress and bouncing back from adversity. During Tutor and Form time, as well as our House Program, these ideas were explored across 16 different games, activities and challenges, and we will build on these as we continue to navigate the ever-changing environment that we find ourselves in.