Education 2020 – The Precious Things We have Lost and Found Dr Helen Street, Founder of the Positive Schools Initiative & author of Contextual Wellbeing

In this article I offer my thoughts on the impact of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 restrictions on social, emotional and academic learning in 2020. In so doing, I will explore what we might learn about better supporting Contextual Wellbeing now and in the future.

Contextual Wellbeing is a term used to describe the wellbeing we experience when we feel connected to our social context; and our social context is supporting our key wellbeing needs for self-determination, engagement and belonging.

In short, if we are connected meaningfully to other people and our broader community, we experience belonging. If we are connected to our activities, be they about work or pleasure, we experience competency and engagement. If we experience equity, in terms of fair treatment and inclusivity, we experience agency and value. We have a voice.

Contextual Wellbeing flourishes when we prioritize cohesion and positive relationships in our classrooms and school communities; when we  support personal goals rather than forced competition and zero sum measures of success; and when we ensure all aspects of education are equitable, with fairness, inclusivity and acceptance of difference and the different needs we all have.

Over the past few years, I have devoted much of my professional life to considering the nature of a healthy educational context; and asking how schools can best support Contextual Wellbeing for all members of their communities. During this time an increasing number of schools have whole heartedly embraced the Contextual Wellbeing framework, with a clear goal to support Contextual Wellbeing for everyone.  Some schools have chosen to incorporate some of the themes of Contextual Wellbeing as a means of complementing more individualized approaches and programs. Others have shown interest in specific topics and themes and asked how a focus on Contextual Wellbeing supports best practice. For example, the topics of behaviour management, mental health and motivation can all be effectively addressed with a contextual focus.

Until the past few weeks, every school and college community I have worked with, has been operating with established expectations about space and place. Considerations of physical distancing have not been on the agenda.

From Then to Now

Before the unprecedented events of recent weeks, the biggest disruption seen to children’s education in the developed world, arguably occurred between 1939 and 1945. The second world war had an immediate devastating effect on education across much of the world including North America, Australia and Europe. Both teachers and students left the classroom to enlist in the war effort. Dropouts became common, and school enrollments declined. In fact, by 1944, only two thirds of the pre-war teaching force were still teaching in the US.

In the UK many children, my father included, were educated by retired teachers and other senior members of the community; as older students, and younger teachers left to fight for their country. Children were often taught in large classes with little guidance and little individual support. As a result, many students were left with significant deficits in their academic learning and in their final academic qualifications.

I recall my father describing how his wartime school day generally consisted of the retired village vicar reliving tales from World War One. The vicar undoubtedly wanted to help the children find perspective and meaning during such a devastating and disruptive time. Although my father’s academic learning suffered, the vicar was offering the children much needed social and emotional support. Then, as now, we attempt to anchor unfamiliar experiences into some meaningful context through comparisons with experiences from the past or even from fiction. In particular, the sharing of relatable stories with positive outcomes (be they in terms of physical survival, lessons learned, or positive changes made) helps to keep hope alive, and community spirit strong.  My father, like many others, ended up completing his education after the war ended, while also holding down a job.

Unlike the six long years of the second world war, the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus in 2020 have only been in place for a few weeks and are gradually being lifted in Australia as I write. It is true that we have no current way of knowing how quickly or realistically life will feel ‘fully functioning’ again. However, the past two weeks have seen the reintroduction of face-to-face education around the country. In some schools, many children and staff have already returned to the school premises. Elsewhere an intermingling of government priorities, rapidly evolving health information and educational concerns, have resulted in some questionable and complex suggestions for ongoing schooling. Yet, despite ongoing disagreement and confusion surrounding the best way forward, there is an overwhelming feeling that Australian education will be back to some level of relative ‘normality’ before the end of term two in July.

Time On My Side

Our sense of time passing is inextricably linked to our social context. The more unfamiliar our social context becomes; the more time appears to slow down. In contrast, the more familiar our context is, the more time rushes by. This is why a great weekend away in a new location can feel like a long holiday whereas a week of established routines can pass in a moment. Unfortunately,  the past weeks and months of ‘never-before-experienced global pandemic’ has seemed like an eternity for many. In reality,  the disruption to schools in 2020 has so far, been extremely short lived compared with the devastating impact of World War Two. This is important to remember to ensure we do not panic unnecessarily about the impact of this current disruption on young people’s overall academic learning. Yet, at the same time, we need to seriously consider the impact of the disruption on their social and emotional wellbeing.

When life is unprecedented, as in right now, I believe that spending time helping kids to anchor their experiences with comparison to fact or fiction is vital. We need to support them through their oscillating feelings within a rapidly and unpredictably changing context. We also need to help them manage the anxiety that comes from seeing parents and grandparents struggle. When parents struggle, their kids struggle; and with so many lives lost, incomes lost and time with others lost; parents are struggling around the world.

Learning from Home

Unlike during the two world wars, education in 2020 comes with vast technological support in place. We cannot underestimate the role that the online world has had in keeping all of us connected and on track in recent weeks. Of course, this online way of maintaining work, learning and social networks comes at a price – I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing FaceTime and Zoom fatigue… None-the-less advances in communications technology have ensured I can still ‘see’ my mother in the UK, and my friends locally; as well as still access colleagues and work opportunities from home. My two high school age children are participating in online school as I type, and my youngest daughter is carrying out activities set for her through online communications.

Certainly, in Australia, we have always considered the needs of rurally based children participating in online education. We also have a long-established history of supporting home schooling as a viable option.  Research has shown home learning to be highly successful for many young people and their families, with many unique benefits evident. In contrast, be it through distance education or home school networks, home learning is frequently criticized by those invested in mainstream education

The key differences between established home learners, and those who experienced home learning in March and April of 2020, are first, perceived levels of control over learning choices and second, common expectations about education.  Although we may not be able to control how quickly events are unfolding right now, we can certainly take this opportunity to better understand educational expectations along with the positives and negatives surrounding different educational contexts.  In so doing, we can learn valuable lessons, and, hopefully, improve mainstream education as it ‘returns’ to ‘normal’.

In many ways, our current world situation has provided us with an opportunity to take part in a ‘global social experiment’. As much as I desperately want the world to be safe and effectively functioning again; and having an extensive background in social Psychology, I also see opportunity to learn so much about the impact of context, about educational practice and about Contextual Wellbeing during this time.

Creating Cohesion when Physically Apart – If Zoom is so amazing why am I so sick of it?

Many adults have been concerned about children’s loss of peer contact because of physical distancing. As a result, many adults have supported young people’s increased use of social media; while also supporting a quick return to classroom life.

I wonder if this concern is as warranted as we might have been led to believe.

It is undeniably true that many children have struggled with isolation, and absolutely, some children do not have a safe space to call home. However, it is also important to consider that many children have benefited from less social complexity in their day to day life.

In recent weeks I have heard many young people talk about missing their friends and opportunities to socialize; be it in the classroom, in a café or on the sports field. Sharing engaging activities with others is important.  I have also heard young people tell me that learning from home has equated to less pressure to conform, less impression management, and less fear of exclusion and aggression from others.  These notable benefits of home learning encourage us to question the rational of assuming that kids ‘need’ lots of other kids around them to thrive.  It also reinforces the need to distinguish between having authentic relationships (supporting a healthy sense of belonging) and having ‘lots’ of relationships (supporting unhealthy impression management).

Supporting Autonomy – The contradiction of community goals and inequitable outcomes

In addition to the impact of Coronavirus on our relationships, other key wellbeing needs have been impacted by the rapidly changing social context around us. As clearly stated in Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self-Determination Theory, along with a need for relationships, we need autonomy and competency in our lives if we are to feel self-determined, motivated and well.

Our need for autonomy equates to our need to have a voice. I believe that autonomy arises when we are treated fairly in life, without prejudice or discrimination. If we believe we are being treated equably , we feel accepted and respected as a valuable member of our community. We believe we matter.

The impact of the Coronavirus and the COVID-19 restrictions have impacted people in very different ways. Most people have missed spending time with others. Some have lost loved ones. Many have lost work and income. Some have lost their homes. In more normal circumstances, these significant losses would be openly grieved. Yet, there is such pressure to be stoic right now, I am not sure that the massive discrepancies between people’s struggles are being truly recognized. As a means of garnering compliance with social restrictions, we have been encouraged to be believe that we are ‘all in this together’. Scott Morrison described the Australian ‘JobKeeper’ payments as the ‘great leveler’ implying that we are all part of the same community and should receive the same financial support. Yet we are not all the same.  Being twenty and living at home is simply not ‘the same’ as having a family and mortgage.

Absolutely we are all part of the same community/society/country/world… and we all need to comply with restrictions to support global health.  However, some of us have certainly had to deal with a lot more than others, and we have every reason to feel that this is unfair.

I am sure that life feels wholly inequitable at present for many of you, not just at a community level, but personally. You may be a teacher who has had to change your approach to term two four times already. Your family may have just lost their business. You may have been unwell or have just lost someone important.

It is vital we understand that when we experience inequity, we lose our voice, and that impacts poorly on our self-determination, motivation and wellbeing. When life feels unfair, we struggle, and rightly so.

It is also important to acknowledge that recent events have impacted very differently on different children. Whereas one child might have spent a month at home with siblings and a great garden, another may have been living in an apartment with no balcony or, with a parent who is still reeling from recent unemployment.

When it comes to our own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the young people in our care, we need to aim for equity. It has never been more important to respect different experiences and different circumstances, while also understanding we are indeed ‘all in this together’.

Feeling Competent when Dealing with Uncertainty – Why Control is Everything and Nothing

A healthy social context supports our need to experience ongoing progress and success in our relationships, activities and in the pursuit of our goals. With so much in the world that is currently out of our control, and yet also the focus on our attention, it is easy to feel anxious and unable to cope. A focus on what is out of our control feeds into uncertainty and fear; and our experience of being competent and successful is depleted.

During a time of so much unpredictability and distress, It is important that we take time out from discussing where the world is ‘at’ and instead focus on the aspects of day to day life we can control. When we focus on what we can control, be it our learning goals for the day, self-care or cooking dinner, we feel more in control, and that means we feel more competent. When I was completing my PhD, I found great comfort in baking. There is something reassuring about successfully making something tangible and concrete (and eating it!). I can easily understand why flour has been flying off the supermarket shelves in recent weeks.

In addition to a loss of feelings of control, the loss of team competition has been an ongoing source of frustration for many. Still, others have found respite in the absence of forced competition that has arisen in recent weeks. Certainly, there are children who have embraced opportunity to grow their personal best, rather than stress about being ‘the best’, be it in the classroom or on the sports field.

It is also important to keep a check on expectations when it comes to supporting competency and success in young people. Despite the media warnings of impending doom, I really think that academic loss will ultimately be minimal for most children in western society, during this disruptive time. The past few weeks have had a massive social and psychological impact on many, but there  is no need to believe this crisis is academically detrimental as well.  Students need reassurance right now. Even final year students with cancelled exams, need to know their future will be just fine.

Bearing the above in mind, I think it important to touch on academic assessment, and the impact of cancelled tests and exams across the school world. Let’s just say, I will be very interested to see how universities experience new cohorts arriving without so many exam scores, but with broader experience.


In summary

In sum, the impact of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 has had many direct and indirect negative impacts on education and young people. Just about everyone is rightly doing all they can to help the world function more wholly again.

Still, I also think we need to acknowledge and understand the opportunities this radical contextual change has afforded us. We have been given an unbridled opportunity to learn more about what does and doesn’t work in every educational context,  and to seek positive changes as we move forward. I can only hope that our desire to seek a return to ‘what was’ does not impede an opportunity to embrace what ‘could be’ .

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

About Helen

Dr Helen Street is one of Australia’s most highly respected educators. With a passion for educational reform and for challenging the status quo, she has become known as a powerful advocate for children’s rights as well as a pioneer in the support of learning engagement, motivation and wellbeing in schools. Helen works with schools and colleges around Australia and internationally; providing talks, workshops, troubleshooting, guidance and longer-term support for staff, parents and students.

In 2009, Helen and Neil Porter founded the Positive Schools Initiative which advocates for educational reform to better support equity, motivation and wellbeing in young people. At the core of The Positive Schools Initiative are The Positive Schools conferences which have become known as Australia’s leading mental health and wellbeing events for educators.

Helen has written over 200 articles and academic papers along with four popular books. Her 2018 book ‘Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out’ has been praised by leading educators around the world.

Helen lives in Perth, Western Australia with Neil, their three daughters and their Cavoodle, Barney.

Visit to find out more about The Positive Schools Conferences

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