The French call going back to school ‘la rentrée’ and in a normal year the last days of August are filled for parents with last minute purchases and activities; new shoes, school shirts, blazers, haircuts, book bags, and new tech. For those who work in education there is the task of setting up their classrooms and thinking about their new classes, the curriculum and the particular needs of individuals, a familiar routine to prepare for the year ahead. But this year of course is a year without precedent. Many children and young people will have not seen the inside of a classroom since the end of March.
Children will have individual versions of the pandemic
Every child and young person in the UK will have experienced their own version of the pandemic. For the lucky ones, during lockdown and its gradual lifting, the support of parents alongside a virtual version of school may have provided new opportunities for learning and for a richer and closer family life. But for many others, especially those with fewer resources, the strain on children and families has been enormous. At the most extreme end the rise in domestic violence has been well documented, as has the likely impact of missing out on the usual pains and pleasures of school life, regular learning and individual support, social contact with peers, the stimulation of active and responsive teaching and learning, physical exercise, and the loss of the normal rhythms of school, weekends, half terms, holidays as the seasons have moved inexorably through Spring and Summer and now towards Autumn.
For some children and families Covid 19 will have touched them directly. They may have experienced the loss of family members, such as grandparents or parents. The children of key workers, such as nurses, doctors, social workers and care workers, may have experienced increased concern about their parents. Some children and young people including the ‘lucky ones’, may have had an untimely glimpse of parental helplessness and fallibility in the face of the virus. Some will have felt seriously worried, upset and unhappy for the very first time in their lives and will be devoid of the resilience or the skills needed to cope. They may go on to experience anxiety and depression and be fearful of coming to school.
Exam chaos and missed experiences have added to the stress
This is not even taking into account the very particular agonies of recent months, the handling or mishandling of results for exam students which has left some young people scrambling to get to the universities and courses which they merit. And for some whose results have been changed perhaps a sense of unreality, of inauthenticity, a sense of having somehow cheated or having been cheated? This same cohort, alongside other year groups experiencing major transitions such as Year 6 who will now be off to their secondary schools, have also lost out on those important rites of passage that usually mark them: celebrations such as prom nights, barbecues, prize days, performances, special trips, and the more ambiguous and just as vital activities such as the ‘decoration’ of the now redundant school uniforms and the water fights, those lord of misrule moments when symbolic revenge can be taken. Secondary schools will be bracing themselves for a more than usually anxious transition while colleges and universities are still working out who they might be welcoming and exactly how.
Getting ready to support children as they come back
As someone who works with children and young people who struggle at school I am mindful of the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on parents, children and young people and school staff. We are all trying to do the best we can but there is an element of improvisation in moving from the limited return to schools in the summer term to the full blown return which begins this week in England and has already started elsewhere. There will be much pastoral work to be done and the recovery plans that schools are putting in place up and down the country will take this into account alongside the academic aspect as they are intimately linked.
Listening and accepting difficult emotions is key
School counsellors, learning mentors and therapists will be busy but it will not just be down to them. Last week the Guardian published an excellent article, Psychologists’ tips: preparing children for the return to school, in which psychologists Bettina Hohnen and Jane Gilmour offer very useful and practical ideas for preparing children to return to school. One of the most crucial points in my view is accepting the child’s emotions with empathy and without trying to fix them. Everyone in the school, at home and in the wider community has a part to play in responding to the emotional needs of the children and young people in their care, whether expressed in a shy hint to their favourite teaching assistant or in disturbed and disruptive behaviour. We will all need to listen.