Deputy Headteacher of Clapham Manor Primary School, Iona Mumby, shares her passion, knowledge and advice about preparing your children to return to school this September.
August is usually a time for relaxation and quality time with family following a long and action–packed summer term at school. This year will see August filled with a different set of emotions for parents and children alike, including anxiety and worry about returning to school after up to five months away.
When planning for the return to school for children at my school, amongst all the reading, research, documentation and endless government guidance, one thing remained at the forefront of my mind – schools, which should be a place of safety and sanctuary for children, particularly our most vulnerable, had become a place to fear. Children were told on March 20th that schools were not safe and the message from those in charge was ‘stay at home’.
Despite schools remaining open for vulnerable and key worker children, school life as we knew it was over for a time and a ‘new normal’ was sought by those in the education sector. It is these feelings of fear and the negative language that have developed since March that need to be recognised and discussed when preparing children for their return to school. It is important to honour these feelings of anxiety and open up the dialogue around mental health, recovery and loss as we return to our school communities.
At my school, our emphasis has been on maintaining health and safety alongside the mental health and well-being of our pupils and families. Creating a safe space for pupils to return, both physically and emotionally is paramount. An excellent example of this was an idea my Assistant Head had to ensure he remained at a safe distance in a non-threatening and frightening way for his Year 1 class – he used colourful bunting to section off areas of the classroom to show boundaries and highlight new restrictions. These principles will be in place as we move to a full re-opening and welcome back class ‘bubbles’ – creating a calm and welcoming space for our pupils to thrive again.
Key aspects of our planned return include:
- Learning environments and shared spaces marked carefully using child–friendly languages and imagery to support safe distancing.
- Classrooms being calm, safe havens – scent diffusers, uncluttered spaces and blue tones have been prioritised by many teachers.
- Class bubbles – we are in a fortunate position as a primary school that working with ‘class bubbles’ was normal practice long before COVID-19. We will continue this ethos and will focus on re-building these teams from September through activities such as circle times, whole school projects and class charters.
- Safe lunchtimes – your child’s existing lunchtime routine may have changed. Imagine the excitement of primary children having their lunch delivered to them in take away containers to their desks in their classroom before spending the rest of their lunchtime outside with their friends.
- Maintaining the school community despite restrictions – a favourite part of my day as a senior leader is being outside on the school gates in the mornings and after school, where I spend time talking to the parents, carers and children about their day or evening. We will be working hard to ensure the school community feel is continued and fostered – small ‘bubble’ coffee mornings and drop–ins for families to see their children working in school can all be achieved under new guidance – but will take a creative and innovative approach as we move forward.
- Curriculum changes – the autumn term will be a time of revisiting missed learning, securing foundations, basic skills and knowledge to enable children to build upon these successfully. However, above all, will be a focus on recovery through a well-planned Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education (PSHCE) curriculum, which promotes mental health and well-being at its heart.
“Part of this will be working closely with parents to provide support, guidance and expertise where possible.”
Following many discussions with parents over the last few months it seems there is a clear divide. While many parents were hoping for a full reopening on June 1st following the government announcement, some were frustrated and even angry this didn’t happen due to pressures in the home. There are still families living in fear of the virus; families who have not left the house more than a couple of times in five months. They might be worried about their loved ones, grieving following a loss or anxious that their culture, heritage and race may put them more at risk and vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
Our job as educators and senior leaders is to empathise with the difference in opinion and do our best to provide a safe and supportive school environment for the full re-opening in September. Part of this will be working closely with parents to provide support, guidance and expertise where possible – our weekly newsletter acted as a great vehicle for sharing mental health support with our families during school closures. Some of the resources I shared to support families were:
Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
National Geographic – Talking to kids about race article
Childline’s toolbox of calming activities
How you can help prepare for the return to school
It is vital that the summer holidays continue to be a time of being outdoors, enjoying quality time, and socially interacting with peers, friends and family. These interactions will support children in their transition back into school and will reduce the fear and anxiety that has, during these times, been associated with human interaction.
Consider the use of language used when discussing the virus – below is an extract from one of our newsletters – this image provides some insightful alternatives for discussions at home to reduce anxiety around Covid-19. Take time to talk. Children will be suffering loss – loss of experience, loss of friendships and time with family and importantly, a loss of freedom. By opening up the dialogue around these losses you will engage your child in discussing and acknowledging their emotions, which, in turn, will support their emotional development, ‘recovery’ and on-going mental health and well-being.
Last – and possibly most importantly – have fun. Children will have missed fun and will be craving this both at home and at school – make time to have fun, be silly, joke, spend time together and relish the freedom we have waited months to enjoy.
When the inevitable ‘back to school’ feelings begin to creep in, in late August make it your mission as parents and carers to show excitement, positivity and enthusiasm about the start of school. Remind children of the warmth and support school provides. Their friends, their teachers and the fun they are so lucky to be returning to.
With this support, they will begin their transition back into school life with feelings of excitement at the prospect of returning to the place they once knew as their safe haven. We will create these sanctuaries once more.
Looking for some packed lunch inspiration? We have teamed up with Bacofoil who have created a week’s worth of colourful, tasty and nutritionally balanced lunchbox ideas for your little ones, all for under £5! Check out the recipes here.