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School psychologist from Bonn: "We are currently dealing quite a lot with fears, even suicidal thoughts"

School psychologist from Bonn : "We are currently dealing quite a lot with fears, even suicidal thoughts"

Johannes Bendszus heads the school psychology department of the city of Bonn, which was flooded with inquiries during the Corona pandemic. Often it is precisely about fears, sometimes even the suicide threats of children and adolescents. In an interview, he explains what he would like to see in the coming months.

Mr. Bendszus, even before Corona, teachers and parents could turn to you and your school psychology team for help with difficulties in everyday school life. Has the number of people seeking help increased during the Corona pandemic?

Johannes Bendszus: Last year, the number stayed about the same compared to the year before. But that is actually an increase.

You'll have to explain that.

Bendszus: In schools, it is often noticed that there are conspicuous features in children or young people. Either the teachers report these cases to us themselves because they are concerned, or they convince the parents to seek help. During the lockdowns, there were significantly fewer registrations from the school side because personal contact was eliminated. Instead, a relatively large number of parents contacted us through our hotline during this phase. When the schools returned to normal working mode between the lockdowns, i.e. between the fall and winter vacations, we were inundated with inquiries. That was quite extreme. There are very complex, heavy cases involved. Now the numbers are stable but at a very high level.

Has the nature of the problems changed in recent months? 

Bendszus: Normally, we have a lot of registrations because of expansive behavior, meaning children who don't follow rules and are aggressive. Parents rarely contact us directly about these cases; these cases are reported through the schools. These are dropping out completely at the moment. My guess: These children are now kept busy at home on the computer or satisfy their needs with food. The strong weight gain at the moment of children and adolescents is known to be a problem. At the moment, we in school psychology have to deal a lot with fears and reluctance to go to school, sometimes even suicidal thoughts or threats from children and adolescents.

That sounds like pretty drastic changes.

Bendszus: Parents are now reporting that their child only lies in bed and gambles, no longer participates in family life, has major problems with distance learning and in some cases even no longer wants to live. Teachers are increasingly reporting children who no longer go to school at all. In some cases, children have disappeared from the radar altogether. The ones I'm most concerned about are the ones you don't hear from - and there are a lot of them. There are going to be some problems ahead.

Where do you think policymakers should have acted differently to make life easier for young people during the pandemic? 

Bendszus: A crisis is always something you can learn from in retrospect. Acting in a crisis is not easy, so I am cautious about making accusations. But for a long time, I didn't look at children and young people in the same way. Children and young people were given very little opportunity to express their opinions in a participatory way and to feel seen and heard. Only now is this becoming an issue, which is perhaps also due to the fact that many older people are now vaccinated and the younger ones are speaking out. Children and young people have often felt ignored in recent months.

Can you pin that down to specific aspects?

Bendszus: There should have been more differentiation; after all, there are very different needs depending on the age group. Younger children need facial expressions to be able to read people. Of course, that's difficult with masks. In my opinion, school closures were also a critical issue. One should have looked more closely at what are the causes of rising incidences. Instead of open or closed schools, the public often focused more on discussions about shopping opportunities.

What would you like to see happen now?

Bendszus: I would like to see adolescents vaccinated quickly now. Social contacts are very important for this age group, and many are still holding back on this. I also advocate participatory structures that get students involved. Children and young people often know quite well themselves what they need now and have ideas about how to proceed. I find the majority of the students to be very reasonable. As far as I can tell, most of them adhere well to rules and measures - better than many adults. They also show a high sense of responsibility. Many have great fears of infecting their families if they have to go to school. We have so many press conferences in so many different areas - why not let children and young people have their say?

Do you think the German Family Ministry's multi-billion dollar "Catching Up Corona Action Program for Children and Youth" will really help - or is money alone not enough?

Bendszus: Now we have to look at what children and young people need, depending on their age group. Money is helpful, of course. Personally, however, I see learning support in second or third place at the most. The priority now should be social support - through activities in clubs, in groups, and also in conjunction with additional learning support, but with a focus on social contacts and the associated social learning. Existing structures - i.e., school social work, educational counseling centers, leisure activities offered by independent organizations in the area of children and youth - must now be strengthened. They know the families, the needs, the necessities. Keep in mind: In terms of their age, it's a relatively long time frame for children and young people into which all of this falls.

Why is this social promotion so important?

Bendszus: Without social relationships and social learning, other learning doesn't work either. We now have to look closely at which children need more time. Last year, it was said that everyone would be transferred to the next higher class. After the summer vacations, however, we continued at a high pace in the performance area. For many, the demands were absolutely too much. Many were lost and now have large gaps. They should definitely be given the time to make up for these deficits. Of course, there are also children who have come through the pandemic well despite all the stress, who have developed further as a result of the crisis and do not need an additional school year.

And these students should be given more time, do you think?

Bendszus: Yes! If someone comes from the desert and is on the verge of dying of thirst, I don't tell him to take a shower first because he's so sweaty. He first gets something to drink and eat to regain his strength, and then he can start with personal hygiene. It is the same with children and young people: We can't start learning stuff until we satisfy the basic needs. There has to be a basis there, otherwise things will go to pot.

How optimistic are you that this will work?

Bendszus: I'm already seeing very big differences between schools. At some schools, the focus is on the relationship with the students. At others, there's a video conference twice a week and maybe you see each other in person to exchange material - that's simply not enough. Every student should have contact with a teacher at least once a day. Nurturing relationships should be the focus now. When the situation improves and it is possible to get back together, teachers should ask how the children are doing, how they experienced the time - and let them tell. Performance should not be the focus for the time being. But I'm afraid I have my doubts about whether that will work.

(Original text: Sandra Liermann; Translation: Mareike Graepel)