Although the reality of the pandemic is ongoing, it is evident that most Australians are experiencing various levels of transition back to a life that is regarded as more normal than the extreme lockdown experience of the past 3 months. Whilst many children may be excited at the prospect of lockdown restrictions being lifted, others may be experiencing mixed emotions. Similarly, many adults will have levels of anxiety and concern about a return to certain aspects of life and social connection which became more distant during their time of isolation.
To ensure a successful adjustment to this new routine which commences on 18 October, it is important to share the 7 Step Strategy Primary School educators take to facilitate a healthy return to life at school post lockdown.
Before you help others check on yourself
The Australian Psychological Society defines anxiety as a natural and usually short lived reaction to a stressful situation associated with feelings of worry, nervousness or apprehension. Dr Justin Coulson PHD reminded us that as adults, to deal effectively with anxiety in our children, we have to deal effectively with anxiety in ourselves about our children. It is important that educators and parents recognise their own challenges or demons and enter any exchange with a child with a sense of measured confidence and positivity about the immediate future. This is likened to adults being instructed to place the oxygen mask on yourself before others on that unfamiliar form of transport called an aircraft, so that you are well positioned to assist and support dependents. Our educators have their oxygen masks on and have moved through intensive planning, discussion and growth processes to ensure that they are that calm, oxygenated adult who is ready to assist the students who are dependent on them.
Validate, support and listen to students
Teachers express empathy and understanding when fielding student responses to this period of home schooling and the return to school. During their exchanges with students and parents they create an open dialogue to help open pathways for solving problems should they arise. They encourage the members of their Moriah community to share their concern and thereby reduce it as opposed to sitting in concern and growing it.
Be honest and encouraging rather than offering empty reassurance
It is critical that students experience adults in their world as a trusted source of information. Instead of offering students the generalised phrase of “there’s nothing to be worried about and it’s safe to return to school”, educators acknowledge risks and emphasize the precautions taken to minimise risk such as ventilation, social distancing, mask wearing or hand washing. Additionally, educators provide students with strategies to keep concerned self-talk within the boundaries of realistic thinking by giving them the tools to identify the problem, locate possible solutions and try out a selected option to assist them.
Encourage a personalised approach, not avoidance
Personalised learning is important in the academic curriculum as well as the socio-emotional curriculum. By educating students on brain functioning, linked to anxiety and fight or flight responses, students understand their personal responses to the changing context in which they are immersed. Please click on the following links for some useful resources: Fight Flight for Kids and Brain Science for Kids – Thinking and Feeling. Educators combine this empowering knowledge with adjusted re-entry programs for individuals so that some students can take smaller or different steps back to school as opposed to lapsing into school refusal and avoidance. Providing a pre-visit experience to an empty COVID safe campus or a safe transition space for a parent and child to say their goodbyes before separating makes the world of difference and is an example of an adjusted return to school.
Praise and reward students for being courageous
As students navigate the pathway in the return to school, educators will be hyper-vigilant for student behaviour that demonstrates courage and positivity as they face their fears, reengage with the increased demand of face to face learning and separate out of the protective, less independent cocoon of home and parents. Success breeds success and this is achieved by letting students know that educators have noticed their positive or courageous behaviour which students then repeat. The Dojo System or Positive Behaviour System of tokens for desired student actions provides a currency for recognising this behaviour and celebrating success.
Teachers model good coping behaviours for students and are calm, honest and caring
Students are very sensitive to the way the adults in their world conduct themselves and refer to them as a barometer of how safe they are and how they should conduct themselves. If the adults manage their fears and stress well then it is likely that the children around them will manage their own reactions well. An honest, open explanation and acknowledgement of concerns about future school closures, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 or the impact of people getting angry or losing jobs because of a pandemic (and restrictions), is best. Educators are trained to confirm that these situations can be upsetting and cause concerns for the future and that we can only manage ourselves at such times by focussing on what we can enjoy in the present day instead of worrying about what the future holds. Mindfulness practices such a the 5-4-3-2-1 routine (google it) grounds children in the present as opposed to leaning into future concern.
Provide clear information in a timely manner and keep close contact with students and parents
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty and this has been evident during this pandemic. The educators as well as the College Leadership provide frequent, clear information and well-articulated routines and boundaries for students to return to school and participate in the “new normal” of their face-to-face world. This consistent action ensures that speculation about bad pathways is removed and the propensity for rumination is reduced. Information shared with parents in emails is reinforced by the context children experience at school and is confirmed via the same, predictable routine being offered to them every day. Students are also supplied with concise infographics to embed a rehearsed narrative into their minds which links to the actions taken by their educators. These message reinforcers assist parents to echo the narrative that is shared by the College. Whenever the adults in a child’s world share conflicting messages an opportunity arises for anxiety, insecurity and the chance to play one context off against another.
Our students who are heading back into the classroom will no doubt feel different degrees of loss, anxiety or sadness. They are separating from the relaxed, easy cosiness of being home with parents, and are moving into a more routine, formal practice which holds potential concerns embedded in the questions raised by the media flooding every corner of their world. Is it safe? How many cases are there? How many deaths are there? Who is vaccinated? Lots of questions, but where are the answers? The answers are not guaranteed or readily available, but what is available is the practiced, measured response of the educators who will greet and guard your children. They set the tone, help your children to feel positive and give them the vocabulary and personal resource to manage this time of transition. Hopefully this article enables you, our parents as partners, to reinforce a confident message to your children that 7 things are put in place by their teachers. This will keep them safe and well and make their return to school a positive, good experience. An experience which will ensure that they are able to put aside their recent difficulties and return to a life of learning happily and productively at school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.