We are coming to the stage where plans are being drawn up for relaxing the COVID-19 restrictions and thinking about children’s return to school. It has been disappointing to see the narratives behind these plans within political and media circles. Narratives such as helping children “catch up”, despite the fact that they have all stopped at the same place and we can adapt the curriculum going forward. To assume that children can pick up from where they left off, let alone consider longer or extra classes, is to disregard the impact of toxic stress on children’s memory, processing, attention, organisation, emotional regulation and other facets of executive functioning.
I’ve been thinking of what we should be focusing on instead. We’ve never experienced anything like this “lockdown” and it has had such a varied impact on families across the country. I won’t pretend to have many of the answers, nor am I certain of asking the right questions. Perhaps it starts with a perspective or ethos which can inform our decision-making. The nurture approach has endured for over 50 years. Nurture Groups have strived to provide enriching and restorative experiences for children whose social and emotional development has been disrupted by trauma, loss and change. The six guiding principles of nurture speak to me as values that can help in this period of uncertainty and upheaval. Values which provide children with the best start as they begin to return to school.
Learning is understood developmentally
Within a nurture group or nurturing provision, this principle requires staff to accept children at their age and stage and forego a narrow focus on attainment. Their skills and competencies will differ and they will make progress at their own pace.
· In contrast to the notion of catching up, we may have to repeat and reinforce previous concepts and skills that have been disrupted by trauma. This might involve revisiting past topics and reminding children of their success. We need to ensure that the building blocks are secure before expecting children to leap ahead to unfamiliar and novel learning experiences.
· We may need to initially focus on providing positive and fulfilling experiences. One of the most enriching is play. Children young and old thrive when they smile, laugh and engage in games and activities that help them to recognise and appreciate their personal strengths. First and foremost, the return to school should be fun. Having lofty academic expectations too soon will undoubtedly add to children’s stress.
· For new learning activities, we should aim to provide meaningful, practical and multi-sensory experiences. Tasks may need to be initially broken down into smaller steps, with clear and simple instructions and active modelling from key adults.
· Heather Geddes provides advice on intervention approaches for children with disrupted attachment. Those who are reluctant at first to engage with staff may need tasks which they can work on independently, so they can develop a gradual tolerance of an adult’s presence. Those who are preoccupied with being connected to key adults may require learning tasks to be time-limited, with more regular feedback and reassurance.
The classroom offers a secure base
The organisation of the learning environment is important in containing anxiety. How we use our classrooms, corridors, dinner halls and playgrounds may be very different, both in how they are arranged and managed and how children can use them when they return to school. Making school a secure base will require a pro-active and consistent approach.
· We could use the strategy of a Social Story on a whole-school basis. It could be posted/emailed to parents and caregivers or communicated via a video on the school website. This could acknowledge how difficult the restrictions have been, welcome the children back to school, show them how things will be different and explain why.
· Structure and predictability will be essential. Visual timetabling and scheduling can inform the children of what is happening now and next. Seating plans will undoubtedly change in order to accommodate social distancing and these should be communicated in advance and illustrated for those who are particularly sensitive to change. If items and equipment are moved to different places within the classroom, these areas should be clearly labelled.
· Decorating a wall with photographs of each child and key staff in the classroom and playground can create a sense of belonging; especially if the children are acclimatising to a different peer group or different members of staff for the foreseeable future. Reassurance can be provided through positive messages such as “You are safe here”, “We remember you”, “You can talk to me any time” and “All of your feelings are ok”.
· We may also need to think of identifying areas of the classroom or “nooks” in the surrounding area which can be used as places for relaxation and calming sensory input. It could have cushions or beanbags for comfort and coloured fabric which enables an anxious or stressed student to scan the room from a place of safety.
The importance of nurture for wellbeing and self-esteem
This principle is concerned with showing children that they are valued, thought about and held in positive regard. Through our relationship with a child, we can promote optimism and resilience for the future.
· Parents and caregivers could be asked to share photos and videos of what their children have been doing at home. These might include rainbow paintings for the NHS, workouts with Joe Wicks, dens made from duvets and pillows, Lego constructions, etc. All of these examples provide immediate conversation starters in which we can praise their creativity and highlight skills that are transferable to the classroom.
· Finding ways to provide them with choice and control in a task or routine can help them to feel “held in mind” and promote autonomy. We should also schedule time during the new school day for them to indulge in special interests and preferred activities. This could be a great way to help them feel competent and successful.
· It will be important for us to celebrate their achievements, however small, in order to bolster their self-esteem. We can make this more concrete through personalised books or boxes filled with evidence of their achievements, their effort and tangible feedback from staff.
· When they encounter more challenging tasks, we can give them hope by commenting on what they are doing well, complimenting their effort and persistence and emphasising that they are making progress and getting better. This is important in challenging negative beliefs and putting setbacks into perspective. Emphasising the notion of learning through practise and taking small steps will help to prevent shame.
Language is a vital means of communication
Helping children to put their feelings into words is of vital importance. This principle also requires us to think carefully about our own language and the messages we need to deliver to children who are experiencing a range of powerful emotions.
· We can apply Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s strategy of “Name it to Tame it” – this utilises the power of storytelling where we talk through a situation leading to a specific action and label the emotion. For example, we could wonder how a child might be anxious about being in the same room as other people or confused about why their class is smaller than usual. We can support the child in narrating the experience, keeping to their pace and asking what happened next at different intervals. Our calm brains help them to connect the dots and allow the fight/flight/freeze response to subside.
· We can encourage them to communicate their feelings and consider what to do about them through emojis, short scripts or role-plays – for example, “I am feeling _____ because” and “When I feel ____, I can ____”. There should be explicit methods of asking for help. Some children may benefit from a Social Story which can talked through with a key adult. Others may need a more concrete and discreet method of asking for a break, such as a coded phrase that only their teacher recognises or an exit card on their desk which can be flipped over.
· We will also need to think about the language we use. Whether it’s a child who is anxious about coming back to school or one who actually preferred being at home, we need to be welcoming and show that they have been thought of fondly. For example: “I’m so happy to see you again”, “I’ve missed seeing your smile” and “When I saw ____ on TV, it reminded me of you and made me wonder what you were up to at home”.
· When it comes to the difficult issue of relatives and friends who have suffered or passed away during the pandemic, school staff will need to be briefed on a simple, concise and factual statement to deliver in classrooms. We need to give time and space for children to discuss their feelings and receive reassurance about typical responses to grief and ways of coping. School counsellors and other professionals involved in critical incident response should be contacted, regarding how to disseminate information to parents and how to conduct whole-school memorials or remembrance ceremonies.
All behaviour is communication
This is a well-known perspective which is not exclusive to nurturing provision. It emphasises the importance of looking underneath a behaviour and asking “What is the child trying to tell me?”. In the current context, we need to be open-minded. The child who throws equipment or swipes items off their desk may be anxious about being in proximity to other children and adults; after months of being told to avoid contact as far as possible with the outside world. The child who refuses to follow instructions or comply with new routines may be feeling hurt or abandoned by a key adult, given the sudden experience of separation and loss when the restrictions were introduced at short notice. Dan Hughes highlights the need for connection before correction and his formula of PACE can be applied to our work in a post-lockdown world.
· Playful interactions with children in the early stages of returning to school will help to create a sense of safety and belonging, reduce stress and defuse situations before they escalate. We might achieve this through personalised greetings in the mornings, being silly, sharing jokes and learning topics through physical action or musical rhythm. We could turn new routines into a game to diminish the strangeness and have fun rehearsals to make them easier to remember.
· Acceptance is about being non-judgemental and showing the child that we understand what they are going through. For example, “I know you’re scared about being here” or “It must be hard not to think of your parents at home. You loved spending so much time with them every day and it’s sad to leave them”.
· Curiosity is important in putting aside our own presumptions and eliciting the child’s views by wondering with them – “I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet since coming back. I think you might be worried about something”.
· Empathy is our way of stepping into the child’s shoes and showing them that “we get it”. We might say “I know this is really tough for you. The classroom looks so different from the last time you were here” or “You are so upset that your friend comes to school on a different day. You miss seeing him every day like you used to”.
The importance of transitions
Simply being in lockdown has been a major transition in children’s lives. Many have been at home. Some have been in school whilst their parents continue to function as keyworkers. Whether a child is going back to school for the first time in months or coping with the return of classmates after experiencing a very different kind of school since March, our students will be faced with yet more change and uncertainty.
· Eliciting the views of children about the impending return to school – by asking them and their caregivers to write a letter, draw a picture or record a video – could help to provide a tailored approach in responding to their needs. Some may be scared to leave their homes or worry about being separated from their parents. Others have previously found school a very challenging or unfulfilling place – they’ve enjoyed being at home and the prospect of returning may fill them with dread.
· It will be important to communicate in advance what the children will be going back to. Will they be in the same classroom as before? How many will be in their class? Which staff will be there? Ideally, a visual overview or personalised message can be provided so that these issues can be talked through at home first. Some schools offer a virtual tour on their websites – since classrooms, corridors and communal areas will likely look very different under social distancing guidelines, the use of photographs and videos of the new environment could help to show young people what they can expect.
· There will likely need to be new routines for arriving to school, beginning and finishing activities and moving between areas. Initial modelling of such routines (as part of the virtual tour outlined above) will be beneficial and we can consider verbal/visual countdowns, rhythm or music to help them anticipate these routines.
· We may also need to think of transitional objects which allow the young person to feel “kept in mind” by a caregiver or key adult when going to and from school. This could be as simple as a photograph, a toy, a key ring or a scented tissue – something personal and comforting. There may need to be consideration of how these can be cleaned or where they can be stored to prevent others from handling them.
The nurture principles are ultimately about supporting children who have missed out on key developmental experiences in their early lives. But I feel they are also a useful guide for helping them to recover from an unprecedented change in their daily routine. We will be asking them to cope with this strange and stressful disruption and adapt to a “new normal” in the coming weeks and months. Applying a nurturing approach in children’s return to school-based education enables us to focus on the factors which foster healing and resilience in the face of trauma. Factors such as safety, understanding, wellbeing and inclusion.
· Bennathan, M. & Boxall, M. (2018). Boxall Profile Handbook (Revised): A guide to effective intervention in the education and care of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. London: The Nurture Group Network.
· Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
· Geddes, H. (2017). “Attachment, Behaviour and Learning”. In Colley, D. & Cooper, P. (Eds). Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
· Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T.P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 proven strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. London: Robinson.
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