This week, some schools and settings opened more widely or reopened for the first time since March, welcoming children back to play and learn. Although it’s fantastic to see the happy faces reported in the media and online, it’s important for us to recognise that this doesn’t entirely mean that everything is back to normal.
Not all children will be returning to schools and settings and it’s important that parents and carers have a choice over this. It’s also important that we’re able to engage in open and honest discussions with families. Our role is not to judge, it’s to listen, acknowledge concerns and provide information to enable decisions to be made. Circumstances for some may have changed considerably during lockdown. Although some parents may have continued to work, some have been home, having been furloughed. This has been a time for families to be together, strengthening bonds and attachments. It’s not difficult to see why some families might be reluctant for this to end, feeling a real sense of loss.
Although many of us have done all we can to remain in touch with families, we have not had that face to face contact which is so valued in Early Years. We unfortunately have no idea of what children have seen, heard or experienced during the period of lockdown. Their circumstances when returning to our care could therefore be very different. Some may have experienced poverty, witnessed domestic violence, been the victims of abuse themselves, suffered bereavement or seen someone close to them become ill. With back to back media coverage of COVID-19, distressing images and reports could have infiltrated into homes across the country. It’s difficult for us as adults to express our feelings about what we’ve seen in the media but for a child to make sense of the content they’ve possibly been exposed to would be very challenging. We, as educators, are the protective factor, working alongside parents to make the transition back to school and settings as relaxed as possible.
Images circulated online show stripped back classrooms, in stark contrast to the inviting, cosy, welcoming spaces we usually expect. Some of us will experience emotional turmoil around this as we adjust to different ways of working. What’s important is to acknowledge that things will be different for a time – this isn’t our fault but we’re doing all we can to ensure the experiences of the children do not suffer.
The environment is for the children – it’s their space so they still need to have the opportunity to have ownership over it. With the restrictions in place and the limitations on toys, we’re going to have to be creative but it’s not impossible. Perhaps using choice boards or simple voting stations are ways to ensure children have a say in their world. Although the environment will look different, it can still be nurturing and safe, with small nooks for children to retreat for quiet time. The adults working with the children form a critical role in the environment. Children will be looking to us for reassurance, watching how we act in this new environment. Our body language and emotional literacy will be important in supporting child to adjust and transition.
The adults in the coming weeks and months are going to be vital to children’s emotional wellbeing. We are key to helping children adapt, develop resilience and learning ways of communicating about their emotions and feelings. There are numerous picture books which can be used to open up discussion and resources such as emotion stars and stones and worry monsters can help too.
Modelling our feelings can help children understand the label and the corresponding emotion. It’s important that children are able to give a meaning to their feelings, which is why we should feel comfortable in talking about what makes us happy, times that we have been scared or when we’ve been sad. These conversations help normalise feelings, celebrating the times when we’re happy but also helping children recognise the feelings that might mean we need comfort.
Guidance from the government likely means that our routines will change to incorporate ‘bubbles’ of children. This could affect how our snack and lunchtimes run, whether we’re able to offer free flow and the access to resources. We are also likely to be impacted by limited staff who could still be shielding or working away from the children due to being clinically vulnerable. One thing is certain – our routines need to be predictable, so children know what to expect when. This is all part of creating an environment where the welfare of the child is at the centre.
Somewhere children can play and learn in an emotionally safe space, free from anxiety and stress.
This transition back to schools and settings is new to us all. It’s going to be a period of trial and error where reflection will be crucial. Some things will need to be changed, what we thought would be a success might have flaws. We can’t see these issues as failures. We’re going to need to be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. If you’re struggling, reach out. We can do this together!