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Back to school, back to a new reality

By Amalia Fawcett, CS#1 Wellbeing Hub Manager

Last week my 6 year old vehemently informed me I make a better mother than a teacher. I couldn’t agree more! This week she went back to school and was delighted. This was to be expected; she’s a high extrovert and needs to be with friends, so lockdown was testing her.

For my other child, however, it is less certain how he will tackle going back. He is also desperate to see friends, but school has not always been his favourite place, so the transition might be a bit tougher. This year, he was enjoying school, making strides and really settling, so I worry some momentum may have been lost.

Other families are anxious that we are emerging from lockdown too early, some students are nervous about different arrangements that will be in place, or anxious about family members being back out in the world. Older students may be concerned they’ve fallen behind and some have only just got the hang of learning from home, and now have to process the next round of change.

One thing is certain; this is not a return to normal. Although going back to face-to-face learning is a relief to many, for others it is simply another thing to worry about. Now more than ever children, and their families, need space to breathe, process and relax.

1.      School is a protective factor

Many years ago, I wrote a master’s thesis on the role of education in protecting children during disasters. My focus was on emergency education in sudden onset disasters, but the principles hold true as our children go back to school during the COVID-19 crisis.

Quality education is known to

“… mitigate the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters by providing a sense of routine, stability, structure and hope for the future. By strengthening problem-solving and coping skills, education enables learners to make informed decisions about how to survive and care for themselves and others in dangerous environments. It can help people think critically about political messages or conflicting sources of information.” (INEE Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies).

Routine, stability and structure are an essential element of supporting children’s resilience. For most children school feels safe and predictable. They are also able to re-establish peer connections and are surrounded by adults who can model healthy ways to cope with stress. The critical thinking taught in schools is also a huge asset when so much misinformation abounds and rumours can gain traction.

Teachers have a wealth of knowledge in supporting wellbeing of different age groups and in how to engage children in future thinking, which also supports their resilience. For older students who may not look as much to their parents for support, reconnecting with their friends at school will also be incredibly valuable.

2.      Build a fort

A few days ago my patience for explaining the use of “ow” and “ou” in spelling wore thin. It was not my finest home-educator moment and my son let me know it. He stalked off, built a fort in the living room and silently let me know he would not be re-joining the lesson until I sorted out my attitude. Later that day I saw an article on Facebook about fort building being another protective factor for children under stress (thanks for the share Maggie Dent).

The article in the Washington Post explains that,

“Fort-building can help kids process this unnerving new reality on their own terms — through imagination and most importantly, control…Forts can also help kids regulate their bodies and emotions. Being in an enclosed, dark space with buffered sound and tactile sensations can be especially therapeutic for children on the autism spectrum, or those who have attention-deficit and sensory processing disorders or anxiety. Forts help children reset their stressed bodies and brains…”

Such a simple activity actually has immense restorative potential. All you need are a few cushions, blankets and a corner of the house. Older children may not be interested, but they could still get involved by helping younger siblings. Alternatively, perhaps a little redecorating in their bedrooms could create that same sense of sanctuary and control that a fort provides for younger ones.

If you do decide to build a fort, join us in our fort challenge and post a picture of it online with #FORTitude. Follow us on Instagram @cs1canberra or on Facebook.

Bluey, a snack and some treasures – all you need in a fort to help wind down! 

3.      Adjust expectations

As Dickens demonstrated, great expectations can sometimes lead to trouble. This is especially true when children are adjusting to so many new and uncertain realities. There may be tantrums over things that would not have bothered your child before, tears over small frustrations, and diminished energy and concentration levels. Many schools will be prepared for this, and families will need to as well.

Kids in the ACT already coped with bushfires and smoke pollution ruining summer holidays. Now with the Easter school holidays spent in lockdown, many students are heading back to school in need of a break!

Now is not the time to expect perfect behaviour and top grades – from our children or ourselves! It also might not be the right time to restart extra-curricular activities that are opening again. Perhaps use the time to do nothing instead. Life slowed right down during lockdown, but it is beginning to gain speed again. Entering the fray a little at a time might be all that can be expected for developing minds and bodies.

4.      Be honest

ACT’s Minister for Education, Yvette Berry, commented that heading back to school is not necessarily a return to long-term stability,

“This is a situation where we are taking every day as it goes and paying attention to what happens across the country but in the ACT we have done everything we possibly can as a community…These things have been changing rapidly and so we have had to respond fast.” (Saved by the bell).

It is important children understand that a return to school does not rule out the possibility of heading back to learning at home if cases spike. While providing reassurance that everyone is working hard to ensure children are safe at school, let them know that one of the ways they do this is to keep us home if needed.

Even small children can have age appropriate versions of the truth. The Raising Children Network put out guidelines about talking to children about coronavirus, which are useful for speaking to children about returning to school as well.

“Children will cope better if they have accurate, age-appropriate information about coronavirus (COVID-19), physical distancing and self-isolation. They also need plenty of opportunities to ask questions and talk about feelings.” Raising Children Network

Children will have many feelings about what they are experiencing and what may come next. As with any big issue, if they are left with silence they will fill in the blanks on their own. This can lead to inaccuracies being embedded in their understanding, which may lead to unnecessary anxiety and confusion.

For older children you may also need to monitor how much information they are receiving. Education in the age of coronavirus is often discussed on the news and in other forms of media. Try to engage your children in conversation about what they are seeing and hearing so that you can help them assess the accuracy or reduce the volume if needed.

Even though restrictions are easing and life feels a little more normal, going back to school may be a bigger transition than expected. Wellbeing still needs to be the main focus, which school definitely contributes to, but it definitely won’t hurt to have a few additional strategies to create mental and physical sanctuaries for school children.

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