It is not enough to tell schools, colleges, students and parents that returning to school is close to being business as usual, with all schools open, full attendance, full hours and a broad and balanced curriculum. It’s probably really unlikely to be this for a long time…
Schools aren’t shops or fast food restaurants they are very, very different. The changes in places where people visit for less than an hour are stark. The risks in centres of learning aiming for over 1,000 hours of intermixing of hundreds and even thousands of individual learners in the next academic year are totally different.
It will be hard to assess the real risks and challenges until students all return and have settled back. As we know setting up a classroom / school in the peace and quiet of the summer holiday is quite different to making it work in the hustle and bustle of a normal school day. For many a worry is how most schools will try to follow the guidance issued by the Department for Education and make it fit the environment of their school or college. The guidance will change, and this will create its own challenges in institutions teachers and students that rely on a degree of consistency to get through the day.
However, my worry is that much of the guidance and Ministers comments treat pupils and students as passive recipients of education, who will be totally compliant and cope with the new rules, regimes and strategies. I’m not sure that I have met any of those students yet and know that it probably wasn’t this that I was striving for in my classrooms.
What we cannot do is send children and young people home because they are unable to cope with the new environment. They are unlikely to be making rational regulated choices about how to behave. If we do this, then we risk alienating and excluding children and young people when they are most vulnerable. Something that we will struggle to turn around again during their limited school or college career. They only have one shot at this.
So, expect some students who forget, a human trait that we all will have demonstrated in the last five months. With added stress we become more forgetful. So how do we react with those who forget?
Some pupils will not be able to cope with the new environment however hard they try and for all students the stresses will build during the day. Some will become more and more anxious as the day progresses. So how do we react to those who struggle to cope with stress and anxiety?
For some they will have friends and siblings outside their school bubbles. They will want to and even need to socialise with them to calm. So how do we react to those that need to socialise with people they trust outside an imposed bubble that probably will only operate in the educational setting?
Consistently recent surveys record around 50% of learners have serious concerns about their return to schools and colleges. Some will be permanently frightened for their own health & safety and for the safety of those at home. Especially our young carers. So how do we react to those with genuine fears that we haven’t experienced or explored with them?
Sadly, for some their home and family environment will have changed during the last 5 months forever adding more and more stresses and trauma. So how do we react to those who have been bereaved or separated?
Others will have Education, Health and Care Plans that no longer meet their learning needs or the new school environment. So how do we react where gaps have appeared in provisions?
And I guess a few, very few will choose to not follow the new rules, but almost none will do this without a reason that seems logical to them in the moment. So how do we react to get to the bottom of their actions to help them to regulate their behaviours?
Then they aren’t individuals there is an added dynamic that results from being in a relatively large group for the first time in months. How do we react to instil a calming crowd mentality?
Even for the most talented, empathetic therapeutic teachers its complicated even before we get to touch on one academic word.
Clearly, we can’t treat every pupil in the same way and hope to succeed. A zero-tolerance regime will not serve the mental health needs of many young people.
We also have to accept that those who are vulnerable to the changes in the school environment will not only be the usual suspects. Many, many more will have been made vulnerable by lockdown, even if the only thing that they have experienced is social isolation.
I suspect that for everyone it will cannot be the case of picking up from where they left off in mid-March or on their last ‘Teams’ or ‘Zoom’ call.
In its guidance the Government in England has stressed the need for a clear behaviour management policy when reopening schools. ‘Schools should consider updating their behaviour policies with any new rules/policies, … setting clear, reasonable and proportionate expectations of pupil behaviour. Schools should set out clearly at the earliest opportunity the consequences for poor behaviour and deliberately breaking the rules and how they will enforce those rules including any sanctions.’
However, I believe that there needs to be much more guidance about how to deal with the vast majority of situations that will hamper learning that aren’t the result of conscious decision making or deliberately breaking the rules. The guidance skirts around this and school under tremendous pressure may seek to exclude pupils and learners from their entitlement to education under Health & Safety concerns.
Schools will need to assess individual needs whether these are academic, social or to do with mental health.
Individual students will need to be encouraged into a state of mind where they are ready to learn and many more will need this learning ready state of mind maintained. It will not be something that all can do on their own. Teachers will need to create and recreate a nurturing mindscape before they can deliver any academic material to fill the gaps or create new learning.
Teaching will need to be more individually child centred than ever before. It will need to be therapeutic, be able to deal with the effect of post-traumatic stress caused by Covid-19 and mitigate against worsening mental health. Teachers will need to recognise the importance of emotions in framing, defining and accessing learning.
A successful return to schools and colleges will not be effective if communication is poor and it is just something that is done to pupils and students. Space must be made for student voice that is listened to and acted on to create a secure learning environment for all. Students need to have co-ownership of what is going to define their education. This new start also affords us the opportunity for real student leadership where children and young people will be able to provide peer to peer support and guidance if time is taken to nurture this aspect of education.
Teachers cannot be disapproving by wielding inflexible punishments that will be perceived as being unfair or dismissive of a student’s state of mind by underplaying their real concerns. Nor can they allow a pupil worries to overwhelm them.
Trauma informed practice will be a vital classroom tool as will recognising the emotional state of each and every student before using emotional coaching so that everyone can reach the academic starting point.
Even if nothing else happens to disrupt the school year, it will not be quick. It certainly won’t be easy. However, without true empathy and patience, the risk and damage caused by the adverse childhood experiences of Covid-19 to the mental health of a generation will last a lifetime. That risk might well be greater than the risks associated with not returning to school and college, which are also huge. We cannot afford to get this wrong.
I am also conscious that every one of these 1,000 plus words can equally be applied to the mental health and capacity of all adults working in education.
Who will the key worker and trusted, non-judgemental supporter for individual members of staff? Everyone working in schools will need that empathetic sounding board to maintain their own mental well-being and this especially includes the Head Teachers.
One thing is for certain, as we return to school or college, we will not be able to treat everyone in the same way and hope to secure a return to achievement for all. I believe that this will be a feature of education for months, if not years to come. It is therefore vital that schools develop a trauma and emotionally informed approach to every aspect of learning to support the mental health of everyone there and in turn this will optimise learning.