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Mind your language! How positivity will help pupils cope with coronavirus

When schools in Wales finally start reopening their doors later this month, they will welcome pupils back to a very different educational experience.

Fewer sessions, smaller class sizes, staggered start and finish times, limited physical contact with their friends and regular hand washing are just some of the changes pupils can expect when they return to the classroom as schools ramp up health and safety measures to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

But as important as it will be to look after pupils’ physical health and personal safety, of equal importance will be protecting their emotional wellbeing and mental health. After all, their lives will have been turned upside down over the last three months, with many of their routines and certainties gone completely.

While some will no doubt have taken the situation in their stride, others will have struggled to come to terms with the drastic change in their personal circumstances – not being allowed to go to their favourite places, not being able to see beloved family members, close friends or teachers. Some might even be dealing with bereavement and loss.

No-one should expect teachers to be able to deal with everything in this regard – after all they are primarily educators, not social workers, but there are small changes they can make in the classroom that will make a big difference.

One of these is language. How we talk about the current situation and restrictions with children will affect how they feel about it.

Research shows that negative language gets more attention, arouses more emotions, has more influence on behaviour, and is stored better and longer in the memory than positive language.

In psychology it is called the negativity bias. Because negativity is often associated with fear or danger, and positivity with security and safety, we automatically pay more attention to unpleasant (negative) than to pleasant (positive) information.

Much of the language that is used around the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restrictions is negative by its very nature. But even some of the language that might be considered ‘neutral’ can be perceived negatively.

Examples of this include lockdown, social distancing, the new normal and self-isolating. These terms have become part of the nation’s shared vernacular since the outbreak began, but they can have negative psychological implications, especially for children.

Professor Paul Gilbert, a clinical psychologist at the University of Derby, recently wrote an open letter to the UK government urging it to change its communication around the coronavirus outbreak to make its language more empathetic.

His recommendations for alternative words and phrases could also be deployed by teachers in the classroom to help pupils’ emotional wellbeing:

  • ‘Lockdown’ can suggest being imprisoned, controlled or coerced, a threat to personal freedom. Instead use ‘current restrictions’, which suggests this is a temporary change to the way we interact.
  • ‘Social distancing’ suggests rejection by society and a lack of human contact or connection. Instead use ‘safe relating’, which emphasises safety rather than distance.
  • ‘New normal’ implies that our lives are disconnected forever, that human connection is a thing of the past. Instead use ‘protection phase’, which suggests the safety of life is the focus and the abnormality is a temporary solution.
  • ‘Self-isolating’ suggests a painful removal from social contact, coupled with loneliness and depression. Instead use ‘contact pause’, which suggests that human connection and social contact is only temporarily suspended.

When children return to school, it is only natural that they will want to discuss their experiences of the last few months and express their feelings about the situation. It will be up to teachers how they address that and whether they integrate it into their lessons and schemes of work.

Pupils will be looking to their teachers for reassurance, for positivity, and for some small sense of normality or link to the life they had pre-coronavirus. The language teachers use will have a big impact on how pupils respond to their new reality.

Finola Wilson is a former teacher and director of Impact School Improvement, which works with schools across the UK.