A friend of mine returned to work recently for the first time since the lockdown. She works with autistic children at an inner-city Birmingham primary school, in a majority BAME area that has experienced a great many Covid-19 deaths. She expressed her anxieties about the return as a practical question: will the crayons be sanitised?
Another friend has been rota-working throughout the lockdown at a primary school near one of the city’s hospitals. Some of the children were already designated ‘vulnerable’, while others are children of NHS workers. She regards them all as vulnerable, because key workers’ children have particular worries about their parents. She related the following incident from playtime:
“It started with someone throwing themselves off a climbing frame, lying there. Someone else said, ‘Let’s have a funeral.’ They pounced on the idea and all the children from Reception to Y6 got involved. The game was about taking it in turns to die. The others would hold their funeral, including a eulogy for them. Children were clamouring for it to be their turn. They played for at least 30 minutes.”
She reflected afterwards: “I see a lot of play about fighting, about power and strength, but I have never seen children, especially younger ones, deal so explicitly with death. As an Early Years teacher, I am used to knowing what to do with play, but this time I felt out of my depth. This was not something any of us had ever experienced before.” She concluded: “They were playful about it. What they needed was for me to take a step back.”
What are the experts saying?
The lockdown has caused individuals and organisations to produce innumerable materials supporting children and their families, including home learning resources and some good guidance on children’s needs. Much of this focuses on children’s need for a safe, loving and caring environment. Some experts, such as Professor Paul Ramchandani – LEGO professor of play in education at Cambridge University – have urged adults to balance formal learning with opportunities for unstructured play (see ‘Further reading’ panel).
Looking ahead, neuroscientist Professor Irene Tracey has warned that “increased levels of anxiety, OCD and other conditions” are a real risk that could affect pupils over the coming years. Helen Westerman, safeguarding expert at the NSPCC, has reported seeing increased levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts during the lockdown, especially among the 400,000 children designated ‘vulnerable’ by the DfE, saying that “there is a potential generation of children that are very vulnerable following this epidemic.” Nigel Attwood, headteacher of Bellfield Junior in Birmingham, agrees, saying: “Our vulnerable children … will be even more vulnerable.”
So what can we do?
Routine can be reassuring for both children and teachers: not everything needs to be different or strange. There will be many things that are new for children in terms of social distancing: keeping clean; people potentially wearing masks and gloves. Everyday school rituals such as doing the register, playtime and putting things away at the end of the day will help provide children with a sense of continuity and stability.
Replace pats on the back and high fives with other forms of human contact: spatial distance need not necessarily mean a ‘stand-off’ environment. Be conscious of what your body language is telling children and remember that no disease was ever passed on through a friendly smile or a comforting word.
Time to talk
Tune into children’s needs and listen to what they say. Use circle time to encourage children to ask questions. As one headteacher reported to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, “We need less focus on core subjects and more on the social and emotional at this hard time.”
As Professor Ramchandani reminds us, children need opportunities for both structured and unstructured play, especially now. This is not only true of the youngest children. As the teacher in the example above found out, this may sometimes mean standing back, watching, listening and letting children work things through for themselves.
Fake news and conspiracy theories have flourished during the lockdown. Helping children distinguish fact from opinion will help them get their heads around what has been happening while developing their critical faculties. For younger children, this may mean being clear that washing hands regularly is a good idea. For older pupils, it may mean looking at news items or social media stories and comparing them with what the scientists actually say.
Any rush to ‘curriculum catch-up’ may be particularly counter-productive for children transitioning from Reception to Y1, as pupils move to more formalised learning, having missed out on the full EYFS experience.
Those who were already vulnerable may be more so. Some children not previously designated as vulnerable may have fresh worries, traumas or difficulties to deal with. Some pupils will have experienced bereavement, all will have experienced separation and a sense of loss. Safeguarding and emotional support will need to be prioritised, possibly for a long time to come.
Story and drama
As the Staffordshire headteacher said: “Drama allows children to play out what’s been going on, while story helps children use and develop their emotional literacy at a time that they will need it.” Both allow them to do so within the safety of fiction. For my own part, I have been working with Big Brum TIE to develop drama strategies which support children’s and teachers’ wellbeing, including a coronavirus monodrama project.
Look after yourself
Teachers are anxious too, and will sometimes be traumatised. This is a good time to be sensitive to your own needs and to those you work with, even if it is just a kind word or sharing your hand sanitiser.
Much has been written about the wider ramifications of this crisis and how the world might change in its aftermath. Existing fault lines and inequalities have become increasingly visible. One headteacher has been quoted as saying, “The legacy of accountability and austerity has hit some schools hard. This crisis has made that all too clear. Now it’s the time to change, slowly but surely.”
For me, the crucial thing right now is to keep prioritising children’s very real personal, social and emotional needs over any perceived need to rush into regaining lost time with formal curriculum progress. Indeed, the latter is unlikely to happen if due attention is not paid to the former.
- Child Bereavement UK – Books and resources for adults supporting bereaved children.
- Cruse Bereavement Care – Recommended books for children about bereavement and grief.
- The Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association – Supporting Children at Home ebook.
- The Syllabus – Important contributions on the political, economic and social effects of Covid-19.
- The Guardian – ‘Don’t turn your home into school,’ says Professor Paul Ramchandani.
- Paul Hamlyn Foundation – What challenges are primary schools facing and how can the arts help?
- Bellfield’s Year – One year with a primary school in a poor part of Birmingham as it battles to stay solvent. Listen on BBC Sounds here.
- The Briefing Room – The psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Listen on BBC Sounds here.
Ben Ballin is an educationalist at Big Brum TIE where he is working on a drama project focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and vulnerable children. He has also co-authored research on global learning and the mental health and wellbeing of ASD pupils.