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Covid’s impact on classrooms: more fights, poor communication. Can we fix that? Yes, says JUST FEEL

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact in classrooms lingers in Hong Kong, where the effects are felt particularly keenly in the early years of primary school. An NGO, JUST FEEL, is aiming to help with that by educating students, teachers and parents in how to communicate compassionately with one another.

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on classrooms is being felt particularly keenly in the early primary years in Hong Kong. Just Feel co-founder Matthew Kwok (right) is instilling compassionate communication to fix that. Photo: courtesy of JUST FEEL

The lifting of the mask mandate and the return of children to school in Hong Kong have not been enough to alleviate the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in classrooms.

The effects are felt particularly keenly by pupils in the early years of primary school.

“Students lost two years of face-to-face interaction with their peers,” says Raymond Yang, co-founder of non-government organisation (NGO) JUST FEEL, which trains schools and families in compassionate communication.

“I won’t say we have to catch up the previous two years, because that’s not feasible, but we have to be more compassionate with students, as they may not be as able as students before to resolve conflict and communicate with their peers,” he says.

JUST FEEL trains schools and families in compassionate communication. Photo: courtesy of JUST FEEL

The challenges are more obvious in the early primary years because older students were able to at least communicate with their peers online.

During his time as a fresh graduate working in a Hong Kong school in 2017, Yang encountered many students struggling with their emotions.

They would often cry unexpectedly, fight with each other or have difficulties concentrating in class.

Yang himself had a challenging childhood and home life and only recently learned the importance of compassionate communication.

He and fellow teacher Matthew Kwok decided to introduce these skills to their students and, in 2018, set up JUST FEEL.

At the time, they had no idea Hong Kong would soon face a year of protests followed by a three-year pandemic. This double whammy has made the teachings of Just Feel even more important.

Ten-year-old Ryson Mak felt lonely during the school closures and missed his classmates. He struggled with lessons conducted over video-conferencing platform Zoom and found it difficult to express his emotions.

The JUST FEEL programme helped him not only articulate his feelings but support others around him.

“When I have worries, I will share them with my best friend. And when others have feelings, I learned to listen to them slowly instead of talking,” says Ryson, a Primary Five student at Buddhist Chi King Primary School in Kowloon.

Among the 16 teachers at Mak’s school who joined the JUST FEEL programme was his teacher Ami Yeung. The programme taught teachers communication skills which they used themselves and with their own families, and then shared with their students.

“In Chinese tradition, we don’t usually tell our feelings,” says Yeung. “Even parents don’t know how to express their feelings. We have provided some talks for parents in schools.

“They find a way to express themselves in their family. It’s good to do in a family and means they argue less.”

Since the pandemic, she has noticed more conflict among students as they struggle with difficult emotions.

“If they don’t know how to talk to each other they might fight. I use the communication skills to help solve the conflict. They talk about their feelings and begin to calm down,” she says.

If you frame a request in a way that gives the child a choice, it will give them a sense of ownership. If you simply punish the child, it will lead to a more severe problem. - Matthew Kwok, JUST FEEL co-founder

Kwok emphasises that social and emotional skills are not incidental soft skills that take a back seat to the important business of getting an education. They are an absolute prerequisite for learning, and it is important for parents to recognise this.

“For emotional well-being and to be ready for learning, you need self-awareness and self-management, to be able to calm yourself down. You need social and emotional skills,” says Kwok.

The holistic approach that JUST FEEL promotes involves schools and families. Parents can provide support by helping their child better express themselves.

Ten-year-old Ryson Mak, a student at Buddhist Chi King Primary School, with his teacher Ami Yeung. Photo: JUST FEEL

Young children may act out because they are struggling to articulate difficult feelings. Rather than punishing the bad behaviour, Yang suggests a more compassionate approach.

“Parents can try asking, ‘Are you feeling unhappy? Are you worried? Are you disappointed?’

This way, the child can learn to articulate their feeling so that the next time they might be better able to express it. For example, next time they might say, ‘I’m disappointed you didn’t keep your promise to take me to Disneyland’ rather than behaving badly.

JUST FEEL promotes a four-step approach to compassionate communication: observe, distinguish the feelings, identify the needs and make a request.

Hong Kong parents often face the challenge of dealing with children who spend hours engaged in online gaming. The typical approach of saying, “Stop gaming now. You’re so lazy, you’re not doing your homework” can damage the child’s self-esteem and is unlikely to stop the behaviour.

Instead, a compassionate approach would begin with a simple observation: “I notice that you’ve been playing games and not completed your homework.” This is followed by an expression of feelings: “I’m worried that you won’t finish your homework/won’t be able to sleep.”

Then the parent identifies the need: “Because everyone in our family has a proper time to sleep.” And finally, they make a request: “Can you finish your homework and then play the game?”

JUST FEEL has been named on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia: Social Impact list. Photo: JUST FEEL

Kwok says” “If you frame a request in a way that gives the child a choice, it will give them a sense of ownership. If you simply punish the child, it will lead to a more severe problem.”

JUST FEEL has been named on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia: Social Impact list. The NGO has already partnered with 20 primary schools.

“I learned many important things about how I can share my feelings with others and manage my emotions. I wish I’d learned that earlier – it would have been helpful to my mental health,” says Kwok.

Ryson Mak has already put his newly acquired communication skills to good use by helping resolve conflicts both at school and at home with his younger brother.

“This is not just for kids. I can use what I learned when I’m older,” says Ryson.

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