Every Sunday since schools reopened families across the country have been having the same conversation: Why do we have to go back to school? Why can’t teachers just continue teaching remotely?
For many kids, the past year and a half has seen them essentially home-schooled with remote teaching via Zoom or Google classrooms. After the initial turmoil of lockdown and enforced confinement, many kids adapted well and were very comfortable with the new setup.
They could login to lessons from their living room, or switch their cameras to a blank screen if they fancied a snack and, crucially, they could stay safe away from the rest of society. But besides the bother of having to wear a uniform and shoes again, there are other issues that both school users and educators are facing after a year away from the classroom.
Back to School Again
It would be naive to think the disruption and disorder that came with the global pandemic had not had an impact on anxiety as well as attainment levels.
In a recent piece for Evidence for Learning, Barry Carpenter CBE, Professor of Mental Health in Education at Oxford Brookes University explained that anxiety coupled with a lack of signposting and routine leads to children’s concentration levels dropping and then to frustration at both themselves and their parents.
A Curriculum of Recovery
The move back into classrooms has been difficult and unsettling for any number of reasons, especially the generalized anxiety about being back ‘out there’ in the world while the pandemic rages on.
Professor Carpenter says the shared experience of our children this past year is one of loss and that a curriculum of recovery needs to be introduced to deal with the “anxiety, trauma and bereavement” that many are feeling.
For many pupils video conferencing had led to feelings of isolation and loneliness, a disconnect from the process of learning, and a sense of being unsafe in the school-based environment.
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) has never been more important and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has collected decades of research showing the impact of SEL education and the correlation between focussing on SEL and better academic outcomes.
Educators now have the mammoth tasks of bringing an entire generation of school kids back up to the educational standards they’re expected to be achieving and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the students. Various techniques can be employed in class to improve mental wellbeing and increase the inclusivity of being back in a physical group space. This includes the following:
1-on-1 Time With Students
Private chats with those who seem to be struggling will be vital and the use of Mindful Moments can help pupils to feel less alone when dealing with turbulent emotions. Feelings boards can be used to identify whichever emotion the child is feeling each morning and gradually, as their moods shift back to the positive, this can help increase optimism and student awareness of their own resilience.
Motivation theory says that allowing students to use their voice, and additionally allowing them to make choices in their learning, increases engagement. One example of student choice is Genius Hour, inspired by Google’s policy of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on side passion projects. During Genius Hour, students are allowed to pursue their own educational learning objectives.
School Is Not Just for Learning
Other than the fact that for most people home-schooling is not comparable to actual in-class teaching, the main argument for being back in the classroom hinges on the importance of social interaction for kids’ development.
A child’s whole self-image, self-esteem, and self-concept is located in the interaction and dynamics of a peer group. Conversation analyst Charles Goodwin explains that as humans communicate collaboratively, face-to-face interaction is essential for mutual understanding. In order to construct a conversation, participants rely on non-verbal cues such as eye gaze, turn-taking, and timing patterns. This is where video calls fall short.
In a class video conference with 30-plus children all talking over each other and interrupting or worse, presenting as a blank screen, all collaboration and nuance disappears.Socializing in a classroom with peers, working in collaboration and building social skills are not replicable online.
Building community and a shared experience in person, being able to discuss it face-to-face with friends and other children is as important as educational achievements in a lot of ways. As Professor Carpenter says, “For most children their daily goal in going to school is not just to learn but to see their friends and to feel a sense of self-worth that only a peer group can offer.”
Important Rites of Passage for Children
It's also important not to forget the little rites of passage that come with attending school. School is not just a place of learning, we’ve seen that over the past year. School is a place of social, interpersonal and creative growth for children, be that through team sports, lunchtime chats, after-school and breakfast clubs, or simply classroom discussions.
The self-regulation and conflict resolution that happens within friend, class and year groups, all help to build relationships and make kids feel a part of something and responsible for that connection. Some schools leavers’ jumpers with class name and year on which is a great way of augmenting inclusion after a year of enforced division.
Another helpful way of growing a sense of involvement and connection are shared projects and group activities. Many schools are looking at ideas that combine creative work and fundraising - and you can think ahead of time. "The project may be run in the Autumn term but does not need to be Christmas focused everyone can still participate," says Gerald
After a year and half of very few positive experiences, making and keeping memories is really important. These types of mementos can help to make the experience of being back in the classroom positive and are a good reminder that we are all connected moving forward.