Covid-19: Guide to children's back-to-school support needs

Lynn Miles
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

In the last six months we have all experienced what many experts are calling a ‘collective’ trauma.

It has been difficult for all of us, and challenging enough for the most resilient adult, but for our children the impact of Covid-19 could remain with them for many years to come.

All our children will have experienced this differently. We do not need to know the details of what the children have been through – unless they choose to share them with us – however, what we do know is that they are likely to return to school with higher anxiety levels and sensitised to the people and environment around them.

Their behaviour is likely to mask how they are really feeling. We may see anger, frustration, irritability, fatigue, withdrawal, aggression, intolerance, distraction, fidgeting and nervousness – but these behaviours are probably hiding confusion, fear, insecurity, worry and numbness.

Children may have regressed socially, emotionally, behaviourally and academically; core skills and developmental milestones they may have previously had and met, may be no more; they may seem immature. Executive functioning may have been impacted resulting in poor working memory, impulsivity and a lack of cognitive flexibility. Children may appear disorganised, forgetful, emotionally dysregulated, and struggle more with change and transitions. Perhaps for these reasons it is a good idea for teachers, where possible, to continue with the same class this year – so changes to behaviour are clear.

For many of our children school was their safe place, and whilst home for some is far from safe, it is what has become familiar over the last six months. School may now represent stress, dysregulation, threat and danger to our children, causing their brains to become stuck in survival mode, swinging between fight/flight and freeze/flop, consequently spending little time in their ‘window of tolerance’ – the place where we feel connected, safe and ready to learn.

We know from research that trauma, without intervention, negatively impacts relationships, learning, educational outcomes and physical and mental health in the long-term and fortunately our schools are well placed to begin the healing children need at this time. To do this, we need to focus on relationships, building cognitive skills and self-regulation, before we attend to the academics. Our children may be three to six months behind academically but trying to force core subjects into them before they are ready will do more harm than good.

I have spent the summer attending webinars, listening to podcasts and reading the advice of trauma and education experts around the world and they are generally in agreement – when we return to school we need to prioritise relationships, ‘reconnecting’ and creating a feeling of ‘belonging’ again. We need to slow down, create calm, safe, predictable environments to help our children return to a place where they are ready to learn again.

‘Lessons’ need to be short and varied, we need to include lots of play and movement, and we should not prioritise core subjects – our children need exercise, the creative arts, stories – practical activities that use their bodies. We already know that children, young people and adults learn best when they are moving – not when they are sat still behind a desk.

In the longer term, we need to rewire our children’s brains for optimal learning; we need to proactively weave activities into the school day, little and often, that will enable our children to remain calm, open to connecting with others and in a good place to learn. Dr Bruce Perry (@BDPerry) explains these activities need to be:

  • Relational (offered by a safe adult)
  • Relevant (developmental rather than chronological age)
  • Repetitive (patterned)
  • Rewarding (pleasurable)
  • Rhythmic (resonant with neural pathways)
  • Respectful (of the child, family and culture)

Examples of these activities include walking, running, dancing, drumming, singing, humming, tapping, colouring, deep breathing, drama, music, yoga, qigong, mindfulness and laughing.

The return to school is going to be full of challenges, and as always, our teachers will rise to the occasion. Senior leaders need to ensure they prioritise the health and wellbeing of their staff, as anxious and agitated adults will lead to anxious and agitated children. We cannot rush this; the children will need as long as they need to come back from this distressing experience – if we do this right though from the outset, the academics will follow.

*Lynn Miles is a senior lecturer in education at Teesside University and leads on their MA Education (Trauma-Informed Practice) and the new Postgraduate Certificate in Trauma-Informed Learning and Teaching which is available for educators of children and young people across all settings. For more contact Lynn Miles

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