Finding Balance in Precarious Times
How educators, students and families can prioritize well-being in the times of COVID-19
As we prepare for a return to in-person learning in Ontario schools this fall, educators, parents and students have plenty of questions and concerns—and health and safety is first and foremost among them.
How can we best protect ourselves and each other? How can we rebuild relationships and foster mental health in a population that has endured months of isolation? What can we do to make sure everyone’s basic needs—for food, for safety, for belonging—are being met at a time when so much is at stake?
“People are looking for ways to feel empowered,” says Cara Rosenbloom, Registered Dietitian and member of the Board of Directors for The Helderleigh Foundation1, “because there’s so little control we have over a pandemic.” The uncertainty can feel overwhelming at times, and while there’s no sure-fire way to avoid COVID-19 short of complete isolation, there are things we can do. By using strategies to foster our physical and emotional well-being, as well as that of our students and their families, we can put ourselves in the best possible position to cope with whatever comes.
We can recognize that we’ve all been coping differently
“I’m having the same challenges as everyone else: finding a balance while I keeping my kids active, well-fed and busy without too much screen time, says Rosenbloom, a mom of two kids, aged 9 and 13. “Then I have to make some time for myself too, so I don’t burn out.”
Dan Vigliatore agrees with Rosenbloom. As a parent and K-6 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) teacher, he found it hard to juggle working with his students with helping his own children, ages 8 and 10, with their school work. “Both environments collided at times,” he says.
And while we’ve all felt the pressure, we’ve each coped with it differently. For example, when it comes to healthy eating, Rosenbloom has heard people talk about both ends of the spectrum – from finally finding time to fix poor eating habits to relying solely on comfort food to cope. COVID-19 isn’t a dietary illness, and she’s quick to point out that there’s no one “miracle food” that will prevent the virus. “But some people are asking, if I can do my best to support my immune system, what does that look like?” says Rosenbloom. “It means eating balanced meals with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods (think fish, chicken, lentils, eggs and beans), while relying less on ultra-processed foods such as candy, chips, pop and baked goods. That will keep the immune system functioning well,” she says.
Meanwhile, secondary Fitness Leadership Focus Program Teacher Andrea Barrow has observed both increased and decreased physical activity. “We know that exercise has a role to play in terms of mental health,” she says, “and some people are embracing that. They have more time to exercise on a regular basis. But at the same time, we’ve seen a lot of people lacking in physical activity and increasing their food consumption. You hear about gaining the ‘COVID-15,’ or the ‘COVID-19.’”
And while some habits may be more beneficial to us than others, there’s no right or wrong way to cope in a crisis.
“The best I can say is it’s about being easy on yourself,” advises Barrow, “and not setting unrealistic goals and expectations during a pandemic. We need to say to ourselves: ‘I did my best during the day. I got through.’”
We can build on the strengths we’ve gained
Instead of focusing on what we’ve lost, it can be helpful to consider some of the skills we’ve gained collectively—not the least of which is resilience.
“A lot of students, including my own kids, have become a little grittier,” says Vigliatore. Not only has he seen his children learn to cope with their emotions by practising positive self-talk and taking deep breaths, he’s also helped his students to learn different strategies to cope with distress, and has seen other educators doing the same through online learning. “Those skills speak loudly in these times,” he points out.
Another positive shift has been the strengthening of family connections—especially when family activities relate to health and well-being. “More families are finding ways to exercise at home together,” reports Barrow.
This time together has often centered around walks and bike rides, but according to Rosenbloom it has also taken place in the kitchen. “Probably the best thing to come out of this is people spending more time cooking at home.” With restaurants closed and more time on their hands, many families found themselves increasing their comfort levels with cooking. “That’s a huge win,” says Rosenbloom. “People are learning that cooking isn’t as hard or as time consuming as they thought, and that they get faster with practice. It’s not out of reach or scary. It provides a sense of pride and accomplishment, which builds self-esteem for adults and children.”
A third positive shift Rosenbloom has noticed is in the realm of critical thinking around health information. “I see a lot of myth busting and questioning,” she says. At a time when people everywhere are grasping at straws and looking for answers that don’t necessarily exist yet, this has become critically important. “There were many myths floating around social media at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Rosenbloom. “But for every time I saw a post with myths, I saw one from someone with credentials who said stop, think, look at the science. People are learning to ask themselves: Is it reliable? Trustworthy? Truthful?”
We can work to build equity
One thing the pandemic has brought clearly to light is the inequities faced by families of differing socio-economic backgrounds. There’s no question that some fared better than others throughout the months of isolation. “Experiences for students will vary,” Vigliatore says. “The possibility of abuse and neglect, or of witnessing those things, is high. Kids’ mental health will be affected.”
Rosenbloom agrees that equity is a huge issue—not only from a mental health perspective, but also when it comes to nutrition. “Everybody has to be starting from the same place. That means equal access to healthy food and programs for nutrition and food literacy. We’re not even close.” And although educators cannot be expected to address this systemic problem on their own, there are things we can do to help.
“We can make sure that children are at least taught the basics of food skills and nutrition beginning in kindergarten and going up to grade 12,” suggests Rosenbloom. Educators should also remember to reach out for support in this area whenever possible. Aside from consulting Canada’s Food Guide, this might also mean turning to resources like Ophea’s Healthy Eating Lesson Plans, Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification: Healthy Eating and Ophea’s Ideas for Action: Healthy Eating, or even calling in an expert for help and advice.
“You can’t teach what you don’t know,” Rosenbloom points out, “and it’s easy to damage a child’s self-esteem and self-worth around food.” For example, she has seen instances of well-intentioned teachers discouraging children from eating sugary snacks when, in fact, that might be the only food that child has access to.
We can prepare to meet students where they’re at
When delivering online learning, Vigliatore found that the greatest challenge was keeping his students engaged. “At first, I had to put the curriculum to the side and focus on reconnecting and reforming meaningful relationships,” he says.
This is also going to be the case when in-person learning resumes. We know that students can’t learn effectively until their basic needs—including safety, food security and a sense of belonging—have been met. By necessity, “catching-up” on missed academics will have to take a back seat in the early days of our return to in-person learning (or continued distance learning for the families who choose it). “Students need to see that their health and well being is as important as math, science and language arts,” Vigliatore adds.
Luckily, the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum is well-positioned to help educators address students’ basic needs. “It’s really the only curriculum that strictly focuses on the well-being of the whole child and promotes the well-being of families,” says Vigliatore. “It supports students by focusing on social-emotional learning skills, healthy living and physical activity. These are all components to a healthy happy child.”
We can work together to make health and well-being a priority
That said, it’s not difficult to anticipate that in September time, space and resources will be at a premium. If living through the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how to be creative (e.g., connecting with others by playing games at a physical distance) and how to use alternative spaces for learning (e.g., the outdoors or digital platforms).
“There’s all sorts of talk about how maybe we can use the gym as extra classrooms,” says Barrow. “We should not be taking away those spaces. We need a place for kids to run around safely.”
“Another thing we need to do is fully embrace daily physical activity (DPA),” Barrow advises. “We know from research that it’s important, and over the years not all schools have followed through. The weather is still great in September. Get out and active. Embrace that more as a school.”
We can lead by example
So much is being asked of educators amid this crisis—and after months of facing the challenges of delivering distance learning, caring for our own families, and coping with mounting uncertainty—we need to remember to address our own health and well-being first. Not only is doing so a kindness to ourselves; it’s a service to our students, as we know our well-being is foundational to students’ well-being and learning too, and our students will be watching and listening to us for cues.
This might mean reaching out for help from our communities, lightening our teaching load by making the most of supports such as Ophea’s H&PE at Home Resources including Ophea Open Class and #LiveHPE to support modelling effective teaching pedagogy in different learning environments, or simply going easy on ourselves as we take the time we need to adjust to yet another shift in the ways we are expected to teach and learn together.
“Everyone, including kids, is looking for the right balance between hope for the future and the reality of today,” concludes Vigliatore. And while there are few certainties at the moment, the surest path to finding this balance is by safely supporting each other in putting well-being first.
1Ophea works across Ontario’s education system in classrooms, in schools, and in school boards, working directly with educators, principals, school board leaders, public health professionals, and provincial stakeholders to bridge policy and practice, often in partnership, as with The Helderleigh Foundation.
The Helderleigh Foundation is Canada’s leading foundation exclusively dedicated to enhancing food literacy. The Foundation envisions a society of better informed young children and their families, consuming healthier foods and beverages.