Keeping safe during a pandemic is about more than following rules

Maintaining social distance in public spaces. (Magazine Features/ cromaconceptovisual/Pixabay)
Maintaining social distance in public spaces. (Magazine Features/ cromaconceptovisual/Pixabay)

A colleague and I were trading war stories about our adventures, out into the world from the safety of our homes, to do shopping a couple of days ago. She told me about driving past the local high school at the end of the school day, where she saw a group of learners walking home laughing and chatting, as one would expect them to do being teenagers.

None of them were wearing a mask and certainly no physical distancing as they strolled along. I recounted witnessing similar non-Covid-19 behaviour.

In my story, however, it was adults sitting around outside a coffee shop which offered a takeaway service having a mask-free and real distancing-free good time. It is widely understood that teenagers are still developing higher-order thinking skills that would make them less impulsive.

But, able to analyse cause and effect and therefore more able to foresee the future consequences of their action, because of the ongoing development of their Prefrontal Cortex.

Their failure to observe physical distancing and mask-wearing rules might, therefore, be understandable; but did this mean the forty-something adults I observed had not developed in their Prefrontal Cortex? What was going on with the adults? What's more though is how are teachers ever going to be able to get their learners to maintain the three critical safety rules (masks, hand-washing and physical distance) when adults, don't.

Why do we take unnecessary risks?

These two anecdotes got me thinking about what it is that makes people take such risks. Is it because they believe they are invincible? Is it because they think that the COVID-19 pandemic is just a scam, and therefore, they are not going to be infected or affected?

I would argue that outside of lack of knowledge of how to take the necessary precautions to prevent infections and the spread of COVID-19, taking unnecessary risks is a result of a person's beliefs, values and attitudes. To understand why someone would take risks, we can ask them these four questions.

Question 1: What do you believe about how you should treat yourself?

Our beliefs provide us with the guiding principles and rules to our lives. These beliefs tell us what we can do, and, what we can't do, what we should and shouldn't do. More loudly than anything that we hear coming from a government broadcast, or reading in a book, or, for that matter, from our parents. Even though very often, our interaction with our parents develop those beliefs.

What beliefs would encourage someone to follow COVID-19 precautions?

People who believe that they are worthy of protection and that they must take care of themselves and their lives are going to act in very different ways to people who do not hold these beliefs. They are more likely to have a positive emotional state and a greater sense of resilience.

Chances are then that they are going to function very effectively in the world and make decisions that have a positive impact on themselves.

Question 2: What do you believe about how you should treat others?

What beliefs about others would encourage someone to follow COVID-19 precautions? I would suggest that a belief that other people are talented enough in your world to be treated well would keep you from doing things that would endanger them.

Right now, this means things like not wearing a mask in public, disregarding others' need to protect themselves, for example.

Question 3: What are the four things that are most important to you in your life?

This is a challenging question to answer if taken seriously. It can take a great deal of personal reflection and thought to come up with the list of the four most important things in our lives. The effort this takes, though, is worth it because our values tell us what we should prioritise in our lives.

Once we know what to prioritise above other things, we focus on those things. What values would encourage someone to follow COVID-19 precautions? I would suggest that the person values health and life, their own and all others, above things like money or possessions. All their actions than would be focused on safety.

Question 4: What is your general opinion of people?

Our attitudes are the lasting opinion we have of someone or something. Necessarily our views can be positive (we have a high opinion of someone) or negative (we have a low opinion about someone) and depending on our attitude, we will behave in certain ways towards that person.

I do not think that anyone who has a favourable opinion of people would ever behave in a way that put other people in harm's way. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this means maintaining the basic rules mentioned earlier.

Taking this into the classroom

Children and teenagers are not easily convinced to do something just because they are told that they must. It seems telling them they must do something is more than likely to result in a rebellion and not doing it than following the instruction.

Although they do lack the prefrontal cortex development that will eventually allow them to limit impulsivity, appreciate consequences and have genuine empathy for others, it does not mean that as adults we need to wait for that to happen.

We can provide them with the 'why' at a young age so that they can start developing these critical thinking skills that enable us to maintain a healthy society.

I think we can use the four questions above to help our learners to clarify their learners' beliefs, values and attitudes so that they start to act in ways that will protect themselves, and others, from Covid-19.

Ask the questions in ways that your learners will understand their best using suitable examples. Do not judge their answers. You can then lead discussions with the learners about the sort of beliefs, values and attitudes that will allow us to keep ourselves, and others safe. This will enable them to evaluate their answers against these preferred beliefs, values and attitudes. This can then inform their future behaviours.

Will they still act foolishly? Possibly, yes. However, I do believe that once they have a better understanding of what a healthier set of beliefs, values and attitudes is, they are more likely to do silly things just a bit less. At the same time, they grow to develop their thinking skills in a somewhat safer world.

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