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This teacher is using mindfulness and WhatsApp to keep girls in Bangladesh learning despite school closures

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While schools in most countries have now reopened their doors after the Covid-19 hiatus, in Bangladesh the government  recently decided to extend the shutdown of educational institutions. Pupils have been out of school since March 17.

For teachers, the extended period out of school is both a challenge – to keep students engaged and learning – and an opportunity to rethink how education should be delivered.

 

Reimagining teaching

Sharmistha Deb is a teacher whose experience of supporting her female fourth-grade students remotely has led her to start a project developing new content on social-emotional learning.

“Research suggests that such learning can help reduce anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, depression, and impulsive behaviour in children,” says Sharmistha, “while increasing test scores, attendance, and social behaviours such as kindness, personal awareness and empathy.”

Lockdown has challenged the wellbeing of many children in Bangladesh. One assessment, conducted in May, found that over half were not taking part in online classes or watching the televised lessons aimed at families without internet access.

Asif Saleh, the executive director of BRAC – an NGO that provides a wide range of services across Bangladesh – has raised concerns about an increase in child marriages in rural areas, while urban areas are seeing more problems with youth crime and drugs.

 

Learning from previous crises

These reports mirror experiences in Africa during the Ebola crisis, according to UNESCO’s reportAddressing the gender dimensions of COVID-related school closures’: Ebola-related school closures “led to increases in early and forced marriages, transactional sex to cover basic needs and sexual abuse, while adolescent pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities”.

Sharmistha, a Fellow of the Teach for Bangladesh Fellowship programme, which aims to reduce educational disparities and build the long term leadership skills of educators, wanted the 33 girls in her class to feel connected and important while their school was closed. She uses a range of apps to keep in touch with them – Imo, Viber, WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as phone calls – and check on their mental health.

She found they were experiencing a wide range of psychological impacts due to being isolated from their friends and having to adjust to radically different daily routines, often with more responsibilities for looking after family members. Lockdown increased the financial insecurity of their households, which had already put some of the girls at risk of exploitation and child marriage.

 

Mental health mentoring

Sharmistha talks to the girls about five ways to boost mental health – prayer, healthy food, meditation, exercise and sleep. These conversations have deepened Sharmistha’s belief that teachers need to support students with their emotional wellbeing, help them to deal with anxiety and develop their self-confidence so they in turn can support their families and communities.

“Students may need additional psychological and socio-emotional support” because of lockdown, notes Supporting teachers in back-to-school efforts: A toolkit for school leaders, a recent publication by UNESCO, the Teacher Task Force and ILO. “A whole new set of vulnerabilities could have reared up during school closures, including disruption of vital safety nets such as school meals or exposure to other trauma in ‘at-risk’ households.”

Among the toolkit’s suggestions is “providing checklists for teachers to assess learners’ behaviour and reactions in relation to stress and anxiety”, and making sure teachers know how to report suspicions of abuse.

Building back equal: Girls back to school guide, calls forprofessional development for teachers, school management and other education sector staff to identify and support girls who are struggling psychologically.”

 

Getting girls back to school

There is the challenge of getting girls back to school, after months away and amid continuing fear of the pandemic. Erum Mariam, the executive director of BRAC Institute of Educational Development, says frontline workers need to “give these families psychosocial assistance and to convince parents to send their children back to school… We cannot work under the assumption that once schools open, children will return.”

After the Ebola crisis there were “increases in school drop-outs among girls when schools reopened”.

Sharmistha is already planning how to integrate social-emotional learning into her lessons, with activities on mindfulness, self-control, relationship building, anger management, coping with stress, empathy, conflict resolution and social sensitivity, and identifying the early signs of mental illness.

“We need to develop social-emotional learning strategies that actually work as proactive initiatives for preventing mental illness,” she explains.

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This blog is part of a series of stories addressing the importance of the work of, and the challenges faced by teachers in the lead up to the 2020 World Teachers’ Day celebrations.

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Cover photo credit: Teach For Bangladesh