Recently many educators and educational leaders have been talking about ‘the learning gap’ and how to fill it. The coronavirus was a hugely challenging time for everyone and continues to have an impact even now in many schools across the country. Undeniably children have suffered however, measuring the impact of disjointed schooling over the past 2 years is the challenge we now face. What is it that children have actually lost during this time? What are the ongoing effects of this? What can we do to help our children thrive in education once again?
As a primary teacher who taught remotely throughout this unusual period of time, I was amazed and full of admiration for how the children responded to the dramatic and unforeseen new normal. Parents rose to the challenge and generally we were able to provide our students with a curriculum that enabled them to learn, albeit in a very different set of circumstances. I felt personally that my remote teaching and learning had its clear successes but daily online lessons never felt the same as previous face to face interactions. So, what was different apart from the obvious?
Once we returned to school the answer to this question became clearer. The concept of ‘belonging’ came closer to the surface of my daily teacher reflections. From socialising at break times to interacting in groups in the classroom, children had become more individualised and showed a lack of emotional resilience when confronted with challenges. Students struggled to cope with the strong emotions linked to returning to school becoming overwhelmed with being part of a community again. When referring to the definition of Mental Health, it was clear my approach as a teacher should be underpinned by this.
‘ Mental Health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’
‘not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ WHO (2001, 2004).
So what is emotional resilience and how is it linked with belonging? The best way to describe emotional resilience is based around the metaphor of not being able to stop the waves but learning to surf (Jon Kabat-Zinn). The best way to learn ‘to surf’, is in a secure, connected, open and positive environment. With this in mind, I spent every morning of the Summer term delivering a ‘belonging’ focussed session. It didn’t take long to realise these sessions were exactly what the students needed. For example, I remember vividly sitting in a circle of chairs with my students with one empty chair in the circle. The child to the left of the empty chair had to invite a student to stand up and sit next to them. Although this sounds basic, it was truly eye opening to see how difficult the children found this and very few students acted confidently at first. Over time, similar activities broke down barriers and enabled them to feel part of a team again.
Finally, recognising the role in which mental health and belonging plays for a child’s education is crucial. A whole school approach is needed. . We must be proactive and not reactive as it is still vastly unclear which students have been affected the most over the past 2 years. One example of a whole school PSHE approach I would recommend is designed by an educational company called JigSaw PSHE https://www.jigsawpshe.com/. Their mindful approach and clear structure enables all children to really know and understand who they are and how they relate to other people in this ever changing world.