I have been meaning to write this for a wee while now, I wanted to share some of my experiences working in schools from August last year up until Christmas. Much has been written and a great deal has been said on this and the further Lockdown of January 2021 has only added to that.
I helped a few schools consult with parents and carers during lockdown, asking about the impact, their worries and expectations for August. One of the key activities was to consult with pupils on these same issues and concerns.
The feedback was pretty much as you’d expect, most enjoyed being at home, some genuinely enjoyed being around their family more and almost all of them missed their friends and some of their teachers. Being home was about family, school was about friends and both were equally important.
Some schools were able to use this feedback to communicate to parents and carers to share the message of the school as a whole community and that returning to school was something for the whole community to manage.
The schools I supported like many others, had a clear, shared focus on wellbeing and relationships, taking the time to ‘check-in’ and creatively using the playground space as well.
As the pupils settled back in, there were some very clear themes emerging across schools for different local authorities – these were very consistent as well, From Aberdeen to Ayrshire.
I’d say that this affected P6 & P7 more so, but it was not exclusive to them. But alongside teachers and staff, we noticed that children were struggling with some of the very basics, from a relationship and behaviour perspective. Increased bickering, arguing, tiredness, an inability to share, not working well together and getting more distressed than usual when falling out over football in particular. Talking in class was also more common, as in an increase in just turning to the person sat next to you and talking, it was something else to observe this.
When I directly explored this with the children, we explored what score they would give their class out of 10 for kindness, it opened up the discussion into what was really going on for them.
When they reflected on their lockdown ‘routines’ they were as you’d expect, very few, very few of them did a full school day (perhaps in the early days doing PE with Joe and when things were new). Almost all of them were staying up later and spending more time on devices. They stayed in their jammies and engaged in some schoolwork, some for an hour a day, some more.
This lasted for a long time and the routine, minus the schoolwork, continued into the summer.
So, it is safe to say that some bad habits were formed over this time. Understandable, yes but ones that did have an impact on them when back at school.
I should also say that, in what was a fairly unique year and with so many global issues covered on the news every day, many children also talked passionately and with real curiosity about Lockdown, Black Lives Matter, Statues, JK Rowling and yes, even Brexit. There has been so much happening in their world, they want to make sense of it all and at primary School age, they’re hugely influenced by what their mum or dad or whoever is looking after them, might say to the telly when the news is on.
So, this mix of information overload almost, flexible routines, later nights and not socialising with peers did have an impact. In my view the impact was on their capacity to do some things as competently as perhaps they did before. Things like being around a larger group of peers, taking turns, listening to people, to be respectful at times and to focus.
It was hard to go from opening the laptop or turning on the tablet, engaging with school for a bit then doing other things, eating when you were hungry and also, something I noticed in August and September. I was with a class of P7’s after break and up to lunch and at least 10 of them had to go to the loo. Now one pupil needing the loo and all of a sudden, another 5 do, is nothing new but for P7’s even this was a change. For many months at home, they never had to think about when they needed the loo, they could just go, not hang on till break or lunch. Some were hungry at different times as well. I discussed this with colleagues in many schools and they were reporting the same behaviour from many of their pupils.
We used these discussions with pupils to kind of acknowledge that there was an issue but to try to get them to see what may be contributing to it. To almost give them an honourable exit and say ‘ok, this explains why we have been a bit less patient and more argumentative, so now that we know this, what can we do to make it better?’.
I must confess that I really enjoyed these discussions and found pupils really open on their feelings and their take on the world around them. But I did feel many had forgotten some part of what they need to navigate their immediate world, especially in school.
Sadly, many colleagues felt that as they moved into late November and December, they could see pupils getting over this experience and being more attentive, patient and working better with peers, only for the new Lockdown to kick in January.
The initial uncertainty about how long this would last put many families back into the ‘holding pattern’. School staff worked tirelessly to get lessons organised and planned during a time of uncertainty and a time where external pressure from organised ‘parenting groups’ did little to help.
Some school are again gathering the views and experiences of families during this lockdown to help then plan and get the next stage. This collaboration and inclusion will stand them in good stead for the years ahead.
If I may, I’d like to share one final thing I noticed form Secondary schools. Children are hugely influenced by parents and carers, always have been of course, this is not new. But when you have a situation where pupils are expected to wear a mask in school, but their mum or dad says that they do not need to do this because of what they believe, they are creating conflict between children and the school, conflict that can be avoided.
When a pupil is told they don’t ‘have to do what the school says’ on something like masks, they are giving the message that some rules are okay, and some are not. In some cases, not all but some, pupils have been very vocal in what they’ve been told is okay by a parent or carer and teachers are spending time responding to this, rather than deliver lessons and support.
My point on this is that this conflict can be avoided, children need consistency. While it is not the intention of parents to undermine the school, this can be an outcome of this. And some children may start to feel that many of the school rules and expectations are negotiable. I will say that I am talking about a very small percentage here, very small.
This experience has helped me understand that the narrative of ‘catching up’ is not helpful, it just heaps pressure on families and teachers. A focus in primary schools on relationships, managing feelings (including boredom and tiredness) and helping them bet back into a groove where they are socialising better and being kinder to and about each other, will have serious impacts on their school work.