Could the 'love languages' help students in lockdown?

The self-help concept could be just the thing for students feeling the loss of normal school life, says this teacher

Nikki Cunningham-Smith

Student wellbeing: Could the self-help concept of 'love languages' help students in lockdown?

Keeping our distance is a way of life at the moment. It is a literal mantra: hands, face, space. Social distancing has become second nature.

But for some people, keeping one's distance is not only an alien concept, but also one that they find incredibly difficult to adhere to. 

I thought about this a lot when the measures first came in but schools stayed open. I worried about how easy it would be for young people to maintain space not only from each other, but also from the members of staff who work with them on a daily basis.

Coronavirus: Social distancing in schools

We all know students who thrive on physical interaction with staff members. I’m not talking about hugging (which personally I always find to be a tricky grey area, especially depending on key stage) but things like a pat on the back, a fist pump or a high-five.

Some of our pupils on the SEN register, especially those with social, emotional and mental health needs, are more likely to favour these brief physical interactions as an easy way to understand positive reinforcement. 

Some pupils struggle to read facial expressions or pick up on tone, but a high-five for a job well done quickly lets them know that this is an action that could and should be repeated.

Some pupils do not have home lives where positive interactions are embedded, so they crave (and find) these in school. 

The 'love languages'

So now, with most students learning from home and those in school social distancing, how can we still cater for those who cannot get their fix of affirmation in the way that they are used to? 

It got me thinking about the idea of "love languages". This is the concept, set out in a popular self-help book from the 1990s, that we each have preferred ways to give and receive love. The theory identifies five love languages: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and physical touch.

In this strange time, could there be some value in getting our pupils to understand what their primary and secondary love languages are? 

We know that physical touch is no longer an option, but even if this is their primary mode, could we also get them to see what their secondary one is and begin working on that? The four other areas can offer food for thought when it comes to replacement strategies, such as: 

Receiving gifts

Giving out or sending home stickers or other small prizes can help these young people feel appreciated. 

Quality time

Being allocated a time voucher for some one-to-one interaction (on a video call or in person) or access to a game can be valuable.

Words of affirmation

Compliments can mean the world. Hearing "You’ve done a great job” or “I appreciate the effort you have made" is important.

Hearing the reasons behind that positive action can send their spirits skyward; students thrive on hearing kind and encouraging words that build them up.

Acts of service

The words "Let me help you" are powerful and can speak volumes to young people.

There are countless other ways of working within these. And by exploring these ideas with our young people, and being creative about how we make small adjustments, hopefully they will find that positive staff interaction can continue, even with a lack of physical touch, during these times.

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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