Community-building in a time of crisis

 

Perspective can be elusive at times like these. The unprecedented nature and monumental scale of the COVID-19 crisis can blind us to those mundane, minute experiences that are our best guides to action. Take, for example, something that every teacher will have experienced: the process of a child joining a new school. In the UK, this particularly applies to children moving from primary to secondary school. 

We know that most children worry more about their new school as a social environment than they do about its academic standards. Their psychological need for close, supportive relationships—for a sense of ‘connectedness’ (Resnick et al., 1997) — both precedes and shapes children’s enthusiasm for learning and their belief in their own capacity to learn. We know that when a school meets these basic psychological needs, students become committed to both its academic goals and to its social and moral expectations (Solomon et al., 2000). 

The lesson would seem to be that if we do not invest in the integration of children into a school community in which they feel valued, all our other efforts are likely to be wasted. And this is particularly true of those children who have particular vulnerabilities or additional needs. That’s why a goal we set for ourselves early on in the COVID-19 crisis was that our school community, rather than simply schooling, would need to be reinvented online. 

We understood that what was at stake went far beyond academic achievement. The rapid review of evidence of the impact of quarantine on mental wellbeing conducted by researchers at Kings’ College London identified negative psychological effects more commonly associated with post-traumatic stress (Brooks et al., 2020). 

We tried to be clear with all our stakeholders that there is a delicate balance to be struck during lockdown – between ensuring that children continue to learn as much as possible in order to thrive in later life, and preserving the wellbeing of those children and their families in the moment. Precisely where that balance is to be found will vary from household to household and student to student. In the majority of cases, this meant supporting parents to make informed decisions rather than trying to make those decisions for them, something that can test school leaders’ self-discipline.

It was also clear, and made more so by the Education Endowment Foundation’s review of evidence supporting distance learning (EEF, 2020), that building students’ intrinsic motivation rather than relying on extrinsic motivators would be key. While some schools have experimented with home-based detentions, we were both skeptical of their effectiveness and concerned about the extent to which they might contribute to tension in the family home. Better to accentuate the positive. 

Therefore, we developed a pastoral programme designed to ensure that every student preserved their sense of connectedness to their school and to each other. No one strategy predominated but clear and consistent communication was the principle that ran throughout everything we did. The following measures, taken collectively, were all essential to our approach. From 23 March, the school:   

  • Instituted a rolling process of risk assessment to determine both how regularly students should be contacted and what form that contact should take. Contact has ranged from weekly check-ins with a form tutor for students who are coping well to daily check-ins for students who are coping less well, or who we had identified as vulnerable prior to lockdown. 
  • Arranged for home visits by our police liaison officer for any student who, for whatever reason, cannot be contacted in a given week. 
  • Engaged in a carefully controlled dialogue with parents of children who are particularly vulnerable and/or show very low levels of engagement with school. The effect of this dialogue has been to steadily increase the number of vulnerable students attending school at least some of the time. 
  • Provided ongoing counselling and mentoring support for students with known mental health challenges, working with outside agencies where this is appropriate and practical. 
  • Instituted a formal, registered tutor session once per week. Tutors use these sessions to lead students in a range of activities with a focus on wellbeing. Tutors have been asked to assign these activities in pairings that cut across known friendship groups to help provide a sense of connection to the wider school community. 
  • Run virtual assemblies for all school houses and year groups focused on a range of pastoral/PSHE topics. We have weighed our choice of topics towards those that will help students cope better during the lockdown. 
  • Set daily physical activity challenges in order to keep students active while largely confined to the home. We’ve asked our PE team to focus on activities that can be attempted with as little physical equipment and in as little space as possible, being sensitive to our students’ vastly differing housing conditions.
  • Used social media platforms to share examples of inspiring work conducted in the home in areas such as creative arts and sports. We’ve also encouraged children to use their own social media presences in creative and supportive ways, such as developing original podcasts through which they share their experiences of lockdown. 
  • Ran webinars for parents focused on helping them to develop strategies for supporting their children effectively in the home. Parents are encouraged to share their own experiences of home learning with us prior to the webinars, in order that these sessions feel more like a curated series of real experiences rather than a series of school dicta.
  • Surveyed students and parents every two weeks about their wellbeing and their engagement with schoolwork and used the results of those surveys to tailor our provision both pastorally and academically.

Reflecting on all of this activity, the hardest things about adapting to this crisis are also the things from which we can learn most – the need to see the public health crises from the perspective of our most vulnerable children and to develop a community of support around those children that includes as many stakeholders as possible.  

 

References

Brooks S, Webster K, Smith L, et al. (2020) The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Lancet 395: 912–20.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Remote Learning: Rapide Evidence Assessment. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Remote_Learning_Rapid_Evidence_Assessment.pdf (accessed 16 June 2020). 

Resnick M, Bearman P, Blum R, et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association 278: 823–832.

Solomon D, Battistich V, Watson M, et al. (2000). A six-district study of educational change: Direct and mediated effects of the Child Development Project. Social Psychology of Education 4: 3–51.

What climate do you make with your actions in the classroom? How do you help pupils to critique, to question, to consider their values and move beyond the status quo?What climate do you make with your actions in the classroom? How do you help pupils to critique, to question, to consider their values and move beyond the status quo?

 

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might your community of support for students need to change as a result of COVID-19 or how has it already changed?

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