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RISE UP – Student Leadership during COVID-19 lockdown

RISE UP - Student Leadership during COVID-19 lockdown

The Virtual Experience

It’s election time for most schools. A new student leadership body due to be elected to lead their peers and the school for the 2021 – 2022 year.

Boy, what a time to step into leadership.

As curve-balling, turbulent and unprecedented as 2020 was, the onset of the Delta Variant in 2021 and thrown most of the entire East Coast of Australia into lockdown, a much stronger wave of restrictions this time around.

A time like no other, incoming student leaders will be thrown by default into the deep end, with the pertinent need to lead from lockdown.

“Leaders flourish in times of crisis” 
(Andrew Wommack)


Leadership begins in the midst of challenges. In light of COVID-19 disruption, restrictions, fear and uncertainty, it’s more important now than ever for student leaders to rise up in this century defining epoch and become light-bearers in a world marred by darkness.

The results of a recent study looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the lives and mental health of Australian adolescents revealed there were “high levels of disruption and psychological distress experienced by adolescents during the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

Student leaders, above all, have the greatest power and influence to promote mental wellness and create cultural change within a school environment, and the world around them.

This is the time to find their voice, pioneer initiatives, exercise creativity and use their God given talents to serve and positively impact the world around them. Within all this is the opportunity to discover and experience purpose in the midst of turbulence, uncertainty and discouragement. This is the time to resolve problems that didn’t previously exist. In this unique and unprecedented period, this is an opportunity to start with a blank slate – the time to imagine, ideate, initiate, and impact. If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

By the way, this is not reserved for the few who have a title and badge. This opportunity is available to anyone who is prepared to rise up, take responsibility, use their influence, serve with empathy, love and compassion, and set the right example to inspire others – within their school, family and community. This is for those individuals that choose to have a positive attitude regardless of circumstances – to be helpful rather than helpless, and powerful rather than powerless.

So what can student leaders do to rise up, let their light shine and spread positivity?

Barbara Fredrickson, American psychologist, and author of the book ‘Positivity’, explains the “10 big emotions” where research has found to shape people’s lives and positive wellbeing – Joy, Gratitude, Serenity, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe, Love.

Imagine the mental health impact if the most dominant emotions in the daily lives of youth and adults alike are these 10 big emotions. Even just one out of the ten. Just imagine.

With technology and the ease of communication at our fingertips via platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft teams as well as social media, student leaders (aka digital natives) have an abundance of opportunities to use their talents, passions and creativity and implement initiatives designed to activate these big emotions within individuals and the collective school community.

Here are 8 light-bearing strategies that student leaders can initiate during lockdown and beyond to activate Fredrickson’s big emotions in others (and themselves) and spread the positivity throughout their school and the world around them. These strategies can be implemented across various contexts including one on one interactions, online classes, discussion groups, formal and informal peer to peer catch ups, assembly, and social media. In addition, these strategies can also be applied in family, social, and community context as well.

1. Speak the language of hope – remind students through every avenue and at every opportunity that as we continue to navigate this stormy winter (metaphorically speaking), spring will eventually come, and it’s during these challenges where we can learn and grow the most. Words have power, whether spoken or written. Use words and statements that instil optimism such as ‘when this is over…’ and ‘this too shall pass’.  For examples, draw on significant events in history such as the Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, and the World Wars. For the Class of 2021, the current lockdown is a tough pill to swallow. Reach out to students from the Class of 2020 and invite them to share pieces of advice via video to the current Year 12s remain tenacious and finish strong, like the students from Rosebank College did. After all, the Class of 2020 is the only group of students that can truly empathise with the Class of 2021, with their year disrupted by the pandemic too. There is no shortage of fear fuelling language via the news and the negativity via social media posts. There is a desperate need for more hope-filled messages.

2. Share local and global stories that inspire – even at the peak of the dark night sky, there are stars, and even amid the pandemic turbulence, there are examples around us that restore hope in humanity, but also in the passion, creativity and resolve that lie in Generation Z as advocates for change and the important role they play in shaping the future. After all, today’s youth are tomorrow’s workforce, voters, and parents.

3. Set up virtual discussion groups – this provides a space for all students to be heard and to voice their concerns, of which, can be relayed back to the student and staff leadership team.

4. Individually catch up with peers and younger students – this fosters connection and belonging. The power of we provides a timely reminder that we are all in this together, building solidarity and unity. Many clouds are going around, and a simple gesture such as a positive and encouraging text message can be that rainbow the recipient has been thirsting for. Personally, it amazes me every time I have done this where I would receive a reply from the recipient showing immense appreciation and admitting that it had been sent at ‘just the right time’ because they were experiencing a low period.

5. Organise virtual fun – this is an area where creativity and innovation can run high through organising events such as a talent night, movie night, gaming night and trivia night to foster connection and belonging. There are many apps that make these types of activities very easy to set up. Kahut is one of them for trivia nights.

6. Set up virtual study groups – this initiative is not only to support students, but also to support teachers. After all, teachers are the real heroes of this pandemic, and while they do provide immense support to students online, their capacity can sometimes be limited.

7. Amplify appreciation – this is the keystone that gives birth to all 10 positive emotions at once, and every second of any given day is an opportunity to exercise appreciation. Practically, student leaders can initiate a gratitude hour initiative where students can attend to meditate, journal, and share, with the feeling of connection and belonging also experiences. Other ways include virtual gratitude boxes for students to fill regularly, encouraging genuine peer to peer compliments to affirm each other’s qualities, and starting off lessons and assemblies with a short prayer of gratitude.  A step further, encourage students in the music and creative arts space to produce a song or poem of gratitude that not only showcases their talents, but also, inspires others and speaks the language of hope.

8. Start up an “Awe challenge” – there is so much beauty around us each day that most people miss because their focus is off, so this challenge encourages students to notice something of beauty during each day, take a picture of it and share it on a school-based platform, or if it’s done within social circles, via WhatsApp or messenger group chat. Beauty can be seen in people, in nature, in video, in song, in words….whatever lights up the heart and soul.

These are just a few of the many strategies workshopped in the Game Plan for School Greatness virtual student leadership program.

Despite the overly exaggerated media reports painting a doom and gloom picture, no storm lasts forever, and this too shall pass, and it’s more important now than ever for student leaders to rise up and be light bearers.

One of the most prominent leaders of all time, Martin Luther King Jnr, famously said:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

This is the essence of leadership. And even if you’re in lockdown, then still lead anyway.

For more information regarding Daniel’s dynamic, fun and impactful virtual student leadership program for incoming student leaders, click here.

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Daniel Merza is an award-winning international speaker, certified virtual trainer, author, and coach, specialising in wellbeing and leadership.

He has been featured on the radio and various newspaper and media outlets, and his work has also been acknowledged in NSW Parliament.

To order Daniel’s book Get the Monkeys off Your Backclick here. To see Daniel in action, click here. For more information on Daniel’s school programs, click here. For corporate programs, click here.

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