As I write, we are still dealing with so many unknowns in relation to support for children’s development during this time of lockdown, and the discussion of how the phased return to school will be achieved. The Children’s Commissioner rightly flags a number of concerns about the impact that this potential six month absence from school may have for children’s learning, and how this will especially impact the most vulnerable of children.
Much emphasis has been placed on the provision of high-quality online learning resources that are being generated by organisations and schools keen to support children’s learning. So much excellent content has been generated in a very short period of time, providing much needed structure and focus to children’s learning activities. Moreover, online platforms are being used by both families and schools to reduce social distance for their children and to enable them to maintain friendships; something that is important in reducing the impact of physical isolation. However, this revolution in online provision raises additional issues for families without access to the internet or suitable digital devices, and again we have seen some efforts made to address this, although there is little doubt that much more is needed in this respect. As a result, the provision and distribution of physical learning resources for the highest need homes is just as important as ever. But it would seem almost inevitable that the online-based response to home-schooling, which has been necessitated by COVID-19, represents a further source of disadvantage that will impact these children’s learning. For our most vulnerable children we need to have community-based resources and activities available to them over the summer period, where the emphasis is less about formal learning experiences, but rather play-based and creative engagement with ideas, texts and other people, as restrictions are gradually lifted. These children need to have prioritised access to local libraries, to community and youth groups, and to practical materials and resources. At the moment there is little happening in this space, but local communities have the chance to further support the COVID-19 effort by supporting the development of all our children in this way as the academic year draws to a close.
School isn’t just about lessons, of course. It is about having access to safe places to learn, to trusted adults, to friends. It is a place to play, to explore social relationships and to develop a sense of identity. Loss of the school environment for all children is therefore likely to impact their wellbeing in a range of ways. Throw in anxiety related to the existence of a new, mysterious but potentially fatal virus to the picture, and the impact of losing family members and family friends, then we are likely to have large numbers of children re-entering school in September whose wellbeing and attitudes to learning are likely to be negatively impacted. This is likely to not only to introduce additional barriers to the children’s learning once back at school, but also may impact their relationships with peers and teachers as they process their new socially-distant school environment (more change), their earlier isolation and, for some, trauma. Trauma informed approaches to learning are going to be a necessary element of successful schools in the new normal. Moreover, the return to school represents for all children a significant period of transition – they may not be moving schools, but the schools they re-enter are going to be changed environments, with new rules and new physical set ups that will change the way children feel when they enter them. They will not be returning to the familiar, but to the strange and for the youngest children, the unnatural. Importantly, they are also transitioning from situations where they may have had more autonomy of when, where and how they learned, to a more prescriptive and rigid learning environment. This loss of autonomy is likely to be difficult to manage for many children.
Monitoring and supporting children’s wellbeing and attitudes to learning is going to be such an important aspect of the new normal. The need for it now goes beyond any desire to maximize children’s attainment and improve their behaviour and motivation: we have to have some sort of mechanism in place to enable us to identify our most vulnerable students on return, recognising that this may be a much larger group than we had before lockdown. We need to have strategies and resources available that can be implemented at the individual, larger group and school levels to counter emotional vulnerabilities in all children: those who have developed a negative relationship with learning or a negative view of themselves and of school, those who lack confidence in their own abilities, and those who are low because school isn’t ‘school’ as they expected it. Crucially, we need to build positive school environments that respect and recognise the critical importance of positive mindsets in our children, and in teaching staff who are likely to be already exhausted by the unrelenting demand on their expertise. And we need to be ready to do this come September.
Professor Clare Wood, Nottingham Trent University
Thanks to Professor Clare Wood, one of the authors of Wellbeing and Attitudes to Learning: Survey and Strategies for this thoughtful piece. If you are looking for ways to monitor and support your pupils' wellbeing and attitudes to learning when your school re-opens, you can view all of our wellbeing and character education resources here.