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Digital burnout – Helping students take back control

Do you have students who find it more and more difficult to be on task or become easily impatient with themselves or their peers? Or ones who miss some lessons for seemingly no reason or even if they do turn up, they look exhausted all the time? These could all be the symptoms of digital burnout. I have written an article about this phenomenon late last year concerning ourselves, teachers. As the symptoms described there for teachers are the same for our students it may be a good idea to read that article first.

What the key in the case of our students is, however, that they – depending on their age – may be less aware of the issues concerning digital burnout and their consequences on their thinking, their behaviour and performance. Therefore, it is essential that we recognize our own responsibility in helping them gain self-awareness and awareness of the issues around digital burnout. So how can I help my students achieve this awareness and what can I do to help them avoid digital burnout or take back control?

Developing self-awareness

1. Talking about feelings and emotions.

As we all know, we first need to help our students recognize and deal with their own feelings and emotions, a lot of which may be the result of digital overload. So, start and end your lesson by getting them to write a word or a phrase about how they are feeling at that moment. You could also ask some of them to reflect on the reasons behind their feelings and talk about it. By repeating the same process at the end of the lesson, you could quickly get them to compare if and how these feelings have changed and, again, the reasons behind them. In low level classes you could simply do this process by getting your students to use emoticons instead of words and maybe explain them in their L1.

Tip: Whenever students open up during self-awareness activities, it is absolutely essential to never judge them or allow for any judgemental statements, as this would immediately stop the natural flow of self-reflection and they would start to fake it, trying to somehow live up to an imagined ‘teacher expectation’. Instead, stick to questions only to help them notice their own thinking, feelings, and their consequences.

2. Discussions on the issue

As at the moment for a great number of students the lockdown is the most challenging thing they are facing, it is important to allow space and time to talk about it, to air their thoughts and to become aware of themselves and what they could do under the current circumstances. Do not try to tackle all the questions listed below as examples at once, but use them in manageable chunks depending on the age and level of your students as well as of the cognitive depth you feel they can engage in. So, here are some questions you can use in your discussions.

What is your daily schedule? Do you have one? How do you think it would help you? What do you do in-between your online lesson? How often do you speak (i.e. not chat online) with your friend? How often do you exercise a day or a week? What do you do in your free time? What are some things you enjoy doing? How many of these are offline?

Questions with greater cognitive and emotional depth:

What is the greatest challenge you are facing these days? What do you find the most difficult in the online learning? Is there anything you can do about it? What is it? What is it that you cannot change and cannot do anything about? Can you accept it? Who do you think could help you in this situation? Have you asked for their help?

Tip: With low-level classes feel free to do this in L1 or take this as an opportunity to teach the activities or the necessary words and phrases in English. For example, try to anticipate what they might come up with, pre-teach those vocabulary before the discussion.

3. Lockdown diary

Ask students to write a diary with either simply a sentence or a paragraph every day. They could take a photo of it and send it to you regularly or you can ask them to look back at the end of the week or month to reflect on what they have written and share that with you or their peers.

Tip: Help your students with writing by giving them guiding questions.

How did you feel today? Why? What was the best/most peaceful moment of today? Would you change any of the decisions you made today? Did you do something you enjoy today? Why (not)?

Highlighting and practising key strategies

After self-awareness tasks, elicit and offer students some strategies they could use to avoid or take back control over digital burnout.

1. Self-discipline

The easiest way to help our students maintain a certain level of self-discipline is by getting them to come up with their own daily schedule. See tips for it in my earlier article. Get your students to create a poster of it, take a photo of it and send it to you. You could also put them in pairs or small groups in breakout rooms to discuss comparisons and differences as well as how they use them.

In this video I offer some further tips on helping our students develop self-control and practise self-discipline in their learning as well as ways of avoiding distractions. Although these suggestions have been made for primary classes, most of them would be just as effective for teenagers.

2. Conscious focus

Incorporate activities in your lessons or for homework that require students to redirect their attention from the online environment to the inner or the physical world. These can be merged effectively with language activities. During lessons, for example, you can do short visualization activities before a reading or a writing task, where you get them to close their eyes, relax their body and follow a set of questions you ask connected to the topic of the lesson. After that they open their eyes and write or talk about the things they have seen. Such visualizations not only develop their imagination and activate their knowledge of the topic, but they also help their minds to relax and their eyes to take a break from the screen.

Another such simple activity is Sounds of Silence:

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016

3. Involving parents

Encourage students to discuss their feelings and difficulties experienced during the online learning with their parents and to try and come up with solutions together. Using the questions described above in 2. Discussions on the issue could be a good starting point for them. These could lead to recognizing the symptoms of digital burnout as well as, to talking about the consequences, and identifying ways in which parents can be a supporting guide for their children.

Rethinking our teacher-expectations

We also need to think about what we could do to ameliorate the consequences of the digital overload and to help our students take back control.

1. Incorporating lots of pair-work and group-work

Pair-work and group work in online classrooms help students connect with their peers, and although it does not replace face-to-face connections, it offers a more personal interaction than simply watching someone speak.

2. Setting offline tasks

For homework ask students to do offline work instead of remaining in front of their devices to complete tasks online. For example, ask them to write in hand and take a photo of their writing to send you or their peers.

3. Less is more

We need to recognize that there is a lot less of material we can get through in the online environment, not only because of the characteristics and the restrictive nature in certain aspects of online teaching, but also because of the current social and emotional burden we are all facing. So plan for a lot less in terms of language teaching and bring in more social and emotional wellbeing activities into your lessons.


Erika Osváth, MEd in Maths, DTEFLA, is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. Before becoming a freelance trainer in 2009, she worked for International House schools for 16 years in Eastern and Central Europe, where she worked as a YL co-ordinator, trainer on CELTA, LCCI,1-1, Business English, YL and VYL courses, and Director of Studies. She has extensive experience in teaching very young learners, young learners and teenagers.

Her main interests lie in these areas as well as making the best of technology in ELT. She regularly travels to different parts of Hungary and other parts of the world to teach demonstration lessons with local children, do workshops for teachers, and this is something she particularly enjoys doing as it allows her to delve into the human aspects of these experiences. Erika is co-author with Edmund Dudley of Mixed Ability Teaching (Into the Classroom series).

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