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We need to pay attention to children’s mental health and psychosocial support

By Jamila Cross

This is a column that is slightly different. With permission from the Editor, I’d like to raise an issue of importance during these challenging COVID-19 times.

The concept of education in emergency settings according to The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is a lifeline for children in crises.

It is estimated that 35 million children around the world have been forcibly displaced, and only half of refugee children attend primary school, and less than a quarter are in secondary school.

So, what does this have to do with us in Trinidad and Tobago as we have transitioned to a remote-learning approach to education in the face of a global health crisis?

For the first time, educators, parents, and public officials have had to face the alarming gaps in access to education of our nation’s children, inheritors of a post-colonial educational structure which has not moved past standardised testing and rote learning.

I am a fervent advocate for the mainstreaming of a holistic approach towards the development of young minds versus the delivery of curriculum at the forefront of academic development.

I have a child who in 2021 may or may not be completing the SEA exam, and I am neither frazzled, nor anxious about his future prospects. One exam will not determine my child’s future!

Rather, for me our current system fundamentally personifies the ‘class-and-caste’ structure that continues to pervade our society rather than producing critical thinkers, leaders, and visionaries from a young age.

It is with this in mind, that as our children in many cases begin their second week into remote learning or in some contexts education in emergency settings that we must consider the mainstreaming of mental health and psychosocial support into our education system as an integral part of a child’s development. In the absence of social-cohesion activities—sports, art, drama, singing— in a physical space to which children have grown accustomed during a school term, how are we ensuring that while laptops, and Zoom classes become a norm, our children’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing are also adequately addressed in virtual settings?


Make mental health of children mandatory

There are many studies which undeniably detail the virtues of the positive impact of sport and co-curricular activities, especially when done in group settings.

Parents may already be aware that having children consistently participating in an organised physical activity has been associated with less anxiety, shyness, emotional distress, and less social withdrawal at school helping kids.

So how can we continue to ensure that our children, many of whom have not been involved with their clubs, or engaged in co-curricular activities for the last six months, continue to have regular access to physical movement beyond academia?

It has to be integrated into the home, and might I even suggest that mental health and psychosocial support for our young ones must become a mandatory part of online classes.

One of my major lessons learnt during 2020 is flexibility. We have to be flexible when adapting to life’s changes. I believe that increasing physical activity and physical fitness may improve academic performance, and I have tried to incorporate this with my family through a daily walk or morning yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Admittedly, during the early months of COVID-19 my approach was extremely ad hoc, and it was difficult for me to establish a routine even for my own mental health and wellbeing while working full time and ensuring my children were able to follow their class schedules.

This time around, I am determined to do things differently and ‘white-boarded it’— it begins and ends with prayer, meditation and yoga. Physical activity may not be possibly for everyone, but what we can do is take mental and mindful breaks during the day, start a gratitude journal, do some stretching and ensure that through this journey our children’s wellbeing is our primary concern.

Jamila Cross is a triathlete, former professional footballer for Sevilla FC women’s Club Spain, and mother of three boys Tishad, Akim and Santiago. She is the founder of the Mariama Foundation, a registered non-profit organisation raising the storytelling bar for the Caribbean’s female athletes.