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Stories about the negative impacts of the pandemic are not in short supply. Luckily, solid advice about how schools can start to rebuild child wellbeing after a traumatic 18 months isn’t either as Premier Education’s Head of Child Journey, Kevin Holland defines.
Young children – three to seven – have lived a large proportion of their life under lockdown. The impact of this includes homeschooling, reduced physical activity and reduced social interaction, which in turn have hampered key aspects of child development.
In this article, Kevin answers:
Let’s start by thinking about the social interaction that these children had started to have by the time the pandemic hit and when that first lockdown happened in March 2020. Those at the younger end of that age bracket would have just started going into school. Some may actually have started to understand that routine. Those younger than three are going to nursery and nursery reception. Prior to that they would of course have been spending a lot of time with their parents.
That first lockdown came in the middle of the school year.
As those young people were now staying at home, they may have seen a different side of their parents. Maybe more stress and maybe more often. Parents who were now working from home and had to homeschool may have been stressed, as would those whose income was impacted. And that increased parental stress and exposure to it impacts the child emotionally.
That said, what might have been bad for one family may have suited another. Some children may have gained access to things that they might not have had before. They might have actually upskilled themselves to use new things because they’ve had to.
Family situations can vary but most were affected in one way or another by the pandemic and children will have seen and felt that change. The chances are that that change was more negative than positive.
Many of those parents were stressed and working from home. This often meant that finding motivation to do physical activity was harder for the parents. And the children suffered because of this. It was noticeable when the first lockdown ended, because suddenly we saw people coming ‘back to life’ and getting back outside. Of course, that may not have been the case for all children – some may have done more physical activity than usual.
Social interaction is key. The biggest thing for young people of that age is that they’re starting to make friends and starting to learn more about how to communicate in different contexts. They’re getting used to the regularity and routine of school life: breaktime, playing, working or reading. Making sure they have all of those different elements is important in building good mental health and habits and tackling anxieties they may have, and developing social skills is a key part of that.
In many cases, children had only adult company, but children need other children to learn the full range of social skills and interactions.
From my own experience I saw my children being dropped off at school, reluctant to go back after the lockdown – children who were fine at reception. That suggests that there’s been an issue around some children’s mental health and anxiety. What was the norm, suddenly changed and became scary.
Schools are obviously very passionate about physical activity and there’s already lots of guidance around play, socialisation, development, physical literacy and motor skills. They’re focused on making the development of the child as secure as it can possibly be. And so schools have been very aware of the problem I describe above and they’re determined to learn from it so that in September, they were fully prepared.
One issue is that we don’t actually know how well they’ve gone through this journey. When young people are in school they’re being monitored within a framework. For example, writing is very much about developing those fine motor skills and strengthening fingers. It’s easier to see where children are moving forwards than it is with their social skills and if they’re present in school.
We want children to be physically active because we know it affects more than just physical health and abilities. It helps focus and behaviour. It can also help build communication skills because they’re doing it with others. They’re getting used to the concept of things with a set of rules and even routines – having your PE kit and so on.
The pandemic has shown the importance of physical activity in supporting wider child development. We should see the child as a whole: mental health is one part of it, habit building and developing social skills are two more. If these are negatively impacted, how do they impact anxieties? As for physical activity, it ties all of these together, whether that’s fun play or PE. The pandemic has really shown the role of how physical activity is linked to all of these adjacent areas.
This relates to a child’s intrinsic level of resilience and their self regulation. From a learning perspective we call it metacognition – how they learn, what best suits them, zones of proximal regulation.
Before the pandemic, many children had more autonomy to build their own skills to overcome barriers, show where they can and can’t be resilient and overcome conflict. From the conversations I’ve had with teachers and head teachers, schools have really struggled with that. Young children have gotten used to an adult stepping in when someone has done or said something to them, so now things are very quickly being escalated to teachers. Before, those children would have started to develop the skills to work through things themselves. And that’s an important part of the learning journey we take young people through.
We call this ‘agency’. The power to move forward with their life, have that autonomy, make some mistakes, but be resilient and reflective enough to overcome problems. Lots of schools work with even young children to start embedding that – even asking children what they’d like to achieve. We need to understand how those young people deal with conflict, how they deal with their emotions and how they deal with other children.
Schools are very good at this. Parents send their children to school for more than English and Maths, but we don’t always get to see that. You’ll hear parents say, ‘wow, I can’t believe how much my child has changed since going to school’, and that’s because schools do this stuff really well.
It’s probably been quite hard for teachers who will have seen some regression in this, but I believe that, with the right tools, we can very quickly pull that back around. With the support of parents we can focus on all those positives and help those young people on their way to becoming real individuals again – which is probably where they were before the pandemic.
Most schools and Premier Education itself tried to find a way to deliver physical activity virtually. Our Stay Active platform has loads of great activities that people could engage with and we also got parents involved in sessions as well. It was great to see schools do this as it shows there is an understanding of the value of physical activity – it could quite easily have completely dropped off the agenda, so that was positive.
I think it was actually harder when children started going back into schools.
There was a nervousness about how they could operate safely even though we knew that being outside reduced the risk. And it was right to be cautious. We wrote all sorts of risk assessments: what you can touch, what you can’t touch, how to deal with cones and balls and so on.
Unfortunately, in some cases it created an element of fear and some schools opted out [of physical activity].
It was really difficult for many schools to deliver activities, because the skill set of many teachers and the PE training they receive is really limited. Of course this was great for Premier Education because we were able to go into lots of schools and continue our support. Our activity professionals were able to add value and resources to the school.
Some areas were hit very hard by Covid and schools in those areas couldn’t offer physical activity and Premier Education couldn’t go in and deliver activity in person. In many of those cases we did it virtually.
It’s tough for these young people. Babies learn to smile because people smile at them, so it’s difficult for young people to pick this stuff. Zoom just isn’t the same – you can’t tell anything about what people are thinking or feeling.
We know that physical activity and play, outside and exploratory learning, and autonomy is absolutely central – especially for the younger ones. We also know that some families have found this a particularly big challenge if they don’t have access to outside spaces. So let’s get them outside as much as we can because we know that outdoor learning and exploratory learning works.
The new cohort starting in September are in a great position because they’re going to come straight in and schools will get those children active and outside quickly.
The key is for those in Reception, Year One and certainly Year Two, to get back to basics – rediscover how exploratory outdoor learning and fun play can add to their curriculum.
We know that there’s evidence that things like handwriting and reading have plateaued, if not regressed, so that will be a focus for schools. But let’s tie that into some outdoor learning to add some excitement to it and let physical aspects of it drive engagement with others. And there’s lots of ways to do that.
Most schools have great outdoor spaces, so, let’s really build into everything we do. If we’re running around for some physical activity, can we use it to help with writing or numeracy? Can we measure some distances to use numbers? Can we measure our heart rate and take that back into the classroom?
By carefully planning all of this, we can really quickly positively impact all of the things we’ve discussed so far – mental health, habits, socialisation.
By getting this right, schools will be really secure come January, knowing that they’ve closed any developmental gaps that have opened up, whether it be social, emotional or academic. Also, rather than going back to their normal curriculum they may see a role for physical activity in a less traditional way, able to support other types of learning ongoing.
For example, lots of schools have pupils come to school already in their PE kit. This cuts down the time it takes to get them all into their kit. It remains an important part of Key Stage One – fundamental skills like undoing your shirt and getting dressed properly – but by the time they’re in Year Seven and Eight you can save lots of time that way. All secondary teachers will know that if you didn’t have changing, you wouldn’t have lots of behaviour issues or arguments or children that haven’t got their kit. When they’re already in their kit, you just come in and start teaching.
Schools need to embrace this element of learning, but equally, they need to support teachers who are less familiar with it.
For example, we have to consider the teachers who prefer more controlled environments – the classroom. We have to consider those teachers who struggle with working with young people in an outdoor space or worry about health and safety. Schools have to help their teachers plan really well and really carefully.
That’s a really interesting question. Parents have really seen the value that comes from sending children to school, but they’ve also been able to reflect on how much physical activity we do: what is part of our daily cycle, what does our weekly routine look like?
For sporty families that may be easy or it may not need changing. But for families with other interests – music or reading – they’re recognising that it’s important to just get outside in the sun, get physically active, socialise with people in that environment because it has huge positive implications for young people but also families because it ties things together.
Parents should be really communicative with schools. They should communicate any concerns or worries that they see at home – and teachers should do the same with parents. This period has proven to both parties that just letting each other know if he or she has had a ‘down’ day can really help – because it might be related to Covid, it might not. It can be important and useful to know.
With the younger children, parents can support their development. Even if it’s just rolling a tennis ball to develop skills like hand-eye coordination, picking things up, interaction. Parents might not have thought that something like that could have been valuable, but it can be.
And just to put it in the wider context, for those who are already sporty or outdoorsy, it’s important to have the odd book lying around to do some reading – just a paragraph.
Parents need to recognise what the role of school has been and what might now be lacking because schools were not able to continue to do everything they do. They need to communicate this with teachers and schools and play a part in building where gaps may exist. This will help the school ensure that there’s the right support at the right time in the right places.
Holidays are an important time. Some parents decide not to do anything for or with their children which is three to six weeks gone. Parents could get their children to write out a joke every day, or write a little story just one sentence a day. Or to help motor skills, parents could help just get their child to do three catches with a ball against a wall. Some of these things won’t come naturally to parents – I’m a teacher and I struggled – but with a little thought and effort you can really support your child.
First, schools should use every opportunity to keep children active. But this needs to be done in a really focused way. Yes there’ll be PE in the timetable but there’ll be lots of other opportunities as well.
It’s important that we ask children to talk about how they feel and how they think they’re doing.
This can be done in classes: talking about how we feel, who are we, where are we at? Are we happy or struggling? This can involve goal setting and be tied into physical activity as well.
By listening to children, by making them heard, schools can be on the front foot and address potential negatives before they have an effect. Schools also can communicate with parents if there are any concerns. Lots of schools already do this really well.
We need to prioritise wellbeing for the whole of 2022 – focus and commit. And that needs to include staff wellbeing as well. Both parties need to be included in everything from government documents and school improvement plans to target setting and performance management.
We need to build a culture of wellbeing – not just talk about it. It needs to include the mental and physical health and wellbeing of every stakeholder: staff, children, parents, governors and headteachers (who are often selfless and forget that element).
Some children and staff will still be worried about where the children are at. We regularly hear through national media how badly affected people have been due to the pandemic, but we need a positive mindset. We need to focus on what we can do and I think physical activity is a really great way to help our children.
There will always be pressure on school time and while wellbeing has our attention right now, literacy and numeracy will probably return as the key pressures. Some of this will come from parents who are asking: how are you [schools] going to get my child back up to where they should be? And Ofsted will be back in schools soon, too.
We still want gifted children to have the opportunity to become the best in their field. But we also want to give ALL children the opportunity to be physically active, destress and let off steam. These things have gone from the PE curriculum because the focus has been on a statutory framework, so we need other opportunities for children to be active and benefit from the social, emotional, physical and mental factors.
All of that needs to be tied into a wellbeing agenda with the school – and that should be part of the curriculum. Personal development sits in the Ofsted framework, so what a great place to do that – being physically active, being self aware, being resilient, being self-reflective. For example, it’s a great opportunity to engage with the Golden Mile – to get out there and walk or run a mile every day. Children can walk or cycle to school – there are hundreds of things that we can do.
Schools are academic places and I get that, but actually we want children to be more than that, we want them to be creative, imaginative, successful, autonomous and inspired. Yes you can do that in English, Maths and Science, but we also need to tackle some of the emergent anxieties and facilitate social interaction. So let’s build it into what schools do. Let’s make it a central part of the week, of school assembly. Let’s make it a central part of the Friday email that most headteachers send to parents to say how the week’s been. wellbeing should be baked into the cake, not just a bolt on.
Don’t just talk about wellbeing at the start and at the end of the year. Talk about it in every staff meeting, every senior leadership team meeting. Define the 20 things you want to tackle, the 20 things you’re going to do and check on their progress every week.
Assess what you’re doing that doesn’t have any impact, stop doing that and have a look at some of the things I’ve talked about here. It will positively impact the young people, the staff and the parents. Surely that means there’ll be a real positive impact in the school. Also, all of the data will tell us that this has positively impacted their academic outcome. It may seem obvious, but a key part is the clarity of that journey.
And Premier Education can help support that.