The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all sectors, with education providers feeling its share of the pain. This is demonstrated by the experience of an education provider teaching employability skills and supporting mature learners to adapt to the job market before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is interesting to note that there are behavioural traits displayed by the long- term unemployed. The educators’ awareness of these psychological mechanisms can support students’ adjustment to online learning while maintaining engagement and motivation.
How to effectively manage job seekers’ behavioural traits has been exemplified by Stepping Stones, an employability programme of the United Colleges Group in London. Their aim is to increase students’ employability by teaching them soft skills and improving their communication abilities. The clients are adults aged between 30-60+ with a long-term unemployment record and facing various barriers to employment such as mental health issues, ill health or low professional skills and motivation.
The lockdown provided an unexpected opportunity to test remote teaching and coaching skills to support unemployed adult students in their professional development and learning. The situation allowed both teachers’ and learners’ professional and personal growth and it was a learning journey truly shared together.
Common and recurrent challenges observed during classroom-based teaching were:
- Low self-confidence
- Poor planning techniques
- Closed mindset
- Irrational thoughts and maladaptive coping mechanisms
These issues are confirmed to be common for mature job seekers across the sector. And long-term unemployment can have severe consequences for individuals and social groups. However, compensatory coping mechanisms and proactive personality characteristics have been proven to have a positive impact on job search intensity. Therefore, Stepping Stones has been structured around soft skills development, using positive psychology and business coaching techniques in order to calibrate students’ irrational beliefs about self and the world.
The small study groups and student-centred approach enabled education providers to create a stimulating environment to challenge students’ irrational beliefs and to increase their distress tolerance. However, this approach was challenged by the new social distancing norms due to the COVID-19 pandemic when both students and teachers had to adjust to the sudden transition to distant teaching.
During 15 weeks of teaching online (synchronous and asynchronous learning) the following were observed:
- Low confidence in their own abilities
- Diminished perception of employment potential
- Low self-esteem
- Closed mindset
In addition, to the above new issues were also observed:
- Poor concentration
- difficulties in following instructions; confusion and a feeling of being overwhelmed
- Over-sensitivity to mistakes and issues with IT while learning online
- Poor time management (submitting work late in the evening or after the deadline)
It was also noted that learners needed more support overcoming their insecurity in IT skills, understanding the IT jargon, time management, resilience and prioritisation. This additional support was provided by organising additional one-to-one Zoom meetings and phone calls to guide and answer students’ queries. Also, students had access to an IT jargon list and IT video tutorials. In the initial stage of distance teaching tutors shared their screen to demonstrate key functions of the online environment.
To this end we made the following adjustments:
- Variable pace
- Positive affirmations and inspirational daily quotations
- Allocated additional time and resources for explaining IT jargon
- Allowed time for small talk and team bonding at the beginning of video meetings
- Introduced regular check-in on overall wellbeing
- Incorporated Five Ways to Wellbeing
- Increased frequency of feedback, praise and acknowledgement
- Guided visualisation and mindfulness techniques
- Regular self-reflection on progress and achievements
How did students feel after they completed the online programme?
- ‘I have enjoyed learning how to use a computer.’
- ‘I have enjoyed learning how to use Teams and Zoom.’
- ‘I have learned that I have more resilience than l first thought.’
- ‘Meeting new people was challenging as l can be very shy at first but classes have pushed me to be more involved from day one.’
- ‘The encouragement given to me made me not give up on myself and helped to rebuild my self-confidence.’
These positive changes in students’ satisfaction were possible due to the regular use of ice-breakers and small team activities which enabled in-class engagement and maintained intrinsic motivation. Students responded very well to the practice of positive affirmations and uplifting quotes.
They carried on and started sharing motivational clips and quotes in the group WhatsApp. It was noted that the use of team bonding activities such as collaborative drawing using a shared whiteboard, encouraging work in pairs (using ‘breakout rooms’ in Zoom) contributed to an open and supportive atmosphere. Learners continued supporting one another by sharing resources and posting job recommendations.
The transition into online learning re-confirmed the importance of incorporating elements of positive psychology and well-being into supporting job seekers during lockdown. Nowadays, when distance teaching and learning have become the ‘new normal’ it is more important than ever to support students’ soft skills and to increase their distress tolerance by developing adaptive coping mechanisms. This can be achieved if students’ mental health and well-being become a part of the teaching curriculum.
Image credit: Freepik
Aga Shoshi is a lecturer at City of Westminster College.
Dr Evgenia Volkovyskaya is a Lecturer in Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Northampton.