Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Anyone involved in working in schools or with school-aged children will be more than aware of the vast challenges the current reopening plans (I use the term 'reopening' loosely, as of course many schools have been open in some form throughout the past few weeks) for schools during this Covid-19 pandemic are bringing, not only from a physical safety consideration, but also a mental health one. It's a difficult time and there's no hiding from that.
Whether or not a child goes back with their cohort will be down to families to decide and they will of course weigh up what is right for their family unit, dynamics and situation. While there is a lot of focus (rightly so) on the complexities of the situation and concerns about issues implementing rules around social distancing, strict hygiene regimes, managing bubbles etc. are like to cause, I would like to pause and reflect on the opportunities that may (or may not) emerge from this whole situation for children for whom school hasn't always been the easiest of places to be. In my attachment and trauma training I cover how relationships, regular check-ins, communication, the learning environment, the structure of the day, sensory needs and awareness of potential triggers all need to be carefully considered to best support the most vulnerable of children at school.
Only time, of course will tell whether any of the benefits will outweigh the negative aspects in any new set-up, but here are some thoughts...
Smaller class sizes (bubbles capped at 15 pupils) – this allows for more focused support time/attention per child and greater scope for the Teacher and/or Teaching Assistant to meet individual needs.
Less overwhelming/overstimulating classrooms – less unnecessary items and stimuli for children who are easily distracted or struggle to cope with sensory overwhelm.
Less overwhelming playgrounds, corridors and lunchtimes due to low numbers and limited amount of bubbles in one space at a time - a real plus again for children who can easily feel overwhelmed and struggle with unstructured times in the day, or transitions between activities.
Lots of structure and routine - this is imperative to support feelings of safety and particularly when so much around us is uncertain. Many children respond positively to this.
An increased sense of belonging (we're in this together) - everyone is in a period of readjustment – no-one is alone in that everyone is trying to make sense of the situation and trying to make it work as best they can.
More outdoor learning opportunities - it's widely acknowledged that being outdoors is good for mental health, and movement beneficial. The government has asked schools to seek to use outdoor space as much as they can.
Potential for a shorter school day - this will be setting-dependent, but some schools are likely to have to stagger start and end times, or go to part-time timetables to manage phasing back.
An opportunity for schools to really focus on mental health needs and well-being for all staff and students - unless children feel safe, they will be unable to access learning.
Mental health issues have been rising in our society for years (there are many schools of thought around why this is the case, and I have my own theories, but that's for another day). Schools have been under increasing pressure to provide additional support to children struggling to navigate an outdated school system which relies on rather odd (made up?!) principles that all children learn at the same rate and must hit specific academic levels at particular ages. If children don't hit the levels, regardless of the quality of support and value added, the school gets hit with a stick (and the threat of further inspections and interventions), staff well-being takes a whack, and worst of all those children are somehow labelled (whether overtly or not) as under-performing (way to go with motivation!). Emotional intelligence and coping skills are where focus needs to be going forward - there's little point in being brilliant academically if one is unable to call on necessary reserves to manage the day to day issues that life throws at us (surely this is never more magnified than now!). Maybe this is a perfect moment to press the 'pause' button and for those in government to reassess priorities. Let's hope so!...
Emma Spillane runs Spillane Consulting, where she works closely with children's mental health practitioners and education professionals in a number of ways: as an education consultant, a trainer, and an advocate for children who’ve experienced trauma and attachment issues. She is also an independent foster panel member for TACT.
Further information about training and consultancy services.