How A-Level students reacted to the pandemic, and what this teaches us about how they deal with their mental health

I have been a secondary school teacher for fourteen years. In that time, I’ve dealt with everything from stressed students to the rise of social media impacting pupils at school and at home, but nothing could prepare me for when the clock struck midnight on the 23rd of March 2020.

Suddenly, instead of helping students with their work, I was helping them with poor wi-fi. Or no wi-fi. One laptop between three siblings. Slow laptop. No laptop. Back ache. Eye strain. Boredom. Absence. Continued absence. Not catching up on missed work. Stress. Isolation. Panic. Exams cancelled for this year. Will next year’s be cancelled too? More uncertainty, further disconnection.

Students were genuinely worried this was going to derail their entire futures, everything they’d ever worked for. This of course took a huge toll on their mental health.

How A-Level students responded to the pandemic

My inbox slowly filled with emails missing subject lines because the content was becoming less about ‘Help with Act 3 please!’ and more about not being able to sleep, strained relationships, and feeling dangerously demotivated. These are harder issues to quantify, and not always something I was equipped to help with. But I was always there for my students, no matter what they were going through.

By the end of the second lockdown in March 2021, I was nearly always talking to someone in my (now) Year 13 class after lessons about their feelings. My students were only a year older between the first and second lockdown but they sounded far more adult than I had ever heard before.

It is difficult to capture the ‘student’ experience of completing A-Level qualifications during Covid but certain things have undoubtedly surfaced. The pandemic has exposed fault lines in how young people connect with themselves and consequently, the world.

How we can help A-level students deal with mental health issues

Tackling mental health in adolescents will only work if adolescents communicate. We, the adults in their lives, may need to work on this ourselves, and then can we teach them how to do it.

Young people find inspiration in the people they have interactions with daily, despite the immense powers of the digital age. Young people in my experience, benefit from being taken out of their own heads and made to look through a different lens from time to time. Literature, art, science, nature, mythology, philosophy and laughter are some effective lenses that I have used.

Here is some of what I have learned about students and their mental health over the past year and a half.

Worries should be expressed and externalised

I bought each of my students a wooden peg that doubled as a ‘worry doll’. They each adopted the doll and told it their worries each night before bed. Some completed the exercise just to humour me, but a few felt unburdened by the ritual. Two students brought their worry dolls with them to results day.

Helping students learn that their worries are normal, and that they can be shared, shows them that their worries don’t have to control them.

Social time should be encouraged

While young people can certainly spend too much time online or on social media, social time between peers should be encouraged.

We’ve seen how vital it’s been to stay connected over the last year and a half. For young people, their friends are a hugely important support network. Although adults like teachers and parents will want to help, sometimes young people need to talk with others who can really understand what they’re going through.

Mental health should be discussed and normalised

Even though we have made huge strides in mental health awareness and understanding in the last decade, there are still many students who feel like they can’t look for help, or admit that they’re struggling.

It’s important to normalise it through teaching it in PSHE lessons, having assemblies on mental health warning signs, and by forming partnerships with local mental health charities.

Having resources available that students can access, as well as clear signposting to mental health advice and support for young people can really make a difference to their wellbeing.

Now my students are out in the world as first year undergraduates, young apprentices, A-Level retakers and gap-year-takers. They are no longer my Year 13 English Literature class, but young adults taking their first steps into the world.

I hope that they learned as much as they could, that they’ve coped as best they can, and have a stronger sense of who they are thanks to what they’ve been through.

 – written by a secondary school english teacher from one of our boroughs

Read our blog on parenting during the pandemic for more information on how young people have handled lockdown, and what the adults in their lives can do to make things easier for them. 

Posted on: 27th August 2021

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