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Social & emotional resources to support your child’s return to school

Around the globe, schools are creaking back open or at least talking about that happening as we slowly emerge from the coronavirus crisis.

The OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, estimates on average each student will miss about 50 days of face-to-face teaching. That’s more than a quarter of the school days for a year (and for some of us, it’s still increasing). Students have a lot of catching up to do academically as well to boost their social and emotional health with all the turmoil.

Here are some tips to support your child as they swing back into the routine of face-to-face classes.

Return to school or forward to school?

First, will returning to school be the same – what exactly will your child be going back to?

Schleicher said: “I’m pretty confident schools will reopen, and we’ll find a way to deal with social distance and hygiene in this kind of contrived environment for learning … that requires pedagogies where students can work together collaboratively and do projects over sustained periods of time rather than being 1.5 meters apart. It’s the hardest nut to crack for teachers, but those solutions aren’t coming from the government, but will be created at the frontiers.

“Yes, schools are reopening, but what kind of education are we going to see? If students can’t mingle, there is a big question mark in front of us. How on earth will pedagogy look like in this different environment?”

Schleicher’s vision for reconfigured learning environments includes the possibility of teachers taking classes outdoors, for example.

“Can we use this moment to create a more compelling approach to teaching and content, so it’s more useful, valuable, and cherished? The idea of blended learning will stay with us. The momentum has been raised to build a new education system.”

Impact of closures on children

The COVID-19 crisis could have a significant impact on children’s mental health, says the World Health Organization. Worry, anxiety, and fear may be common as are fear of dying, their relatives dying, or what it means to get medical treatment.

The WHO advisory says: “If schools have closed as part of necessary measures, then children may no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by that environment, and now they have less opportunity to be with their friends and get that social support that is essential for good mental well-being.”

They advise the simple parental strategies of patience, love, and attention to help children resolve their fears. As well, explain in age-appropriate ways so children can understand about the virus and its impacts on society.

When the school gates open again

Teachers may feel compelled to ‘pick up where we left off’ with a flurry of explicit instruction, tests, and assessments to make up for lost time. It won’t be the best strategy, suggests a strategy in Continuity in Education.

“The isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic is causing both physical and mental health concerns for children worldwide. When the pandemic is over, schools and kindergartens represent a crucial context that can play an important role in promoting young people’s well-being,” say the researchers.They see schools as an ideal setting to deliver a re-entry program that creates a space for children to process emotions, “rediscover interpersonal connections and develop an awareness of effective coping strategies.”

“… once children are back at school, their need to process the events connected with the prolonged isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will be paramount, and it would be a serious mistake to neglect it.”

Issues to keep on your radar

Here’s a range of issues to consider as your child returns to classroom learning:

  • If your child has reading difficulties or learning difficulties, will they need to catch up? And will that be a surprise because they thought they worked hard during the shutdown?
  • Will they suffer separation anxiety?
  • What is your assessment of your child’s learning –  has there been any regression the teachers should know about?
  • Is your child exhibiting any clues of anxiety that the teachers should be aware of?
  • Oh, and parents might suffer separation anxiety once their children return to school – take care of yourself, too.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social-emotional learning is a useful tool to address those issues. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), it’s the process to help children and adults understand and manage their emotions plus establish and achieve positive goals. It also includes feeling and showing others sympathy, developing positive relationships, and responsible decision-making. Putting it another way, CASEL says SEL relies on these competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills, and
  • Responsible decision-making.

So, where’s the evidence it works?

A meta-analysis of more than 270,000 students who undertook evidence-based SEL programs found they improved their academic achievement by 11%. It looked at universal school-based social-emotional development programs and rated their impact on positive social behavior, problem behaviors, and academic performance. These programs combined the integration of emotion, cognition, communication, and behavior rather than teach social and emotional skills separately.

The study’s authors said: “Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges. Students who have set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage their stress, and organize their approach to work learn more and get better grades.

“Further, new research suggests that SEL programs may affect central executive cognitive functions, such as inhibitory control, planning, and set-shifting that are the result of greater cognitive-affect regulation in prefrontal areas of the cortex.”

Most North American teachers, schools, communities, and policymakers echo this support for SEL programs, seeing their benefits as part of a well-rounded education.

Relationships are the focus

Parents and community are crucial partners’ to the success of an SEL program. As well, the ‘community’ within the classroom that the school nurtures is also important.

Sheldon Berman, Superintendent at Andover Public Schools in Massachusetts, writes in Education Digest (Berman, S. (2019). What we’ve Learned about Implementing Social-Emotional Learning. Education Digest, May) about when SEL programs are implemented well.

 “In a classroom that focuses on relationships and learning, errors in judgment and behavior are addressed through logical consequences and restorative practices that help students learn to resolve differences, manage emotions and see others’ perspectives.” That gives you an insight into ideally how you’d want your child’s school to run its SEL program.

Resource List

So, while the above may forewarn you for the SEL program your child’s school might roll out once they return to school, here are a range of resources to help you before they step through the school gate.

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics: plain English updates and information about the virus focused on families and children. It suggests when you’re talking to children about the coronavirus, you follow these summarized tips: reassure them simply, give them control, watch for signs of anxiety, monitor their media usage and be a good role model. The site also has a great resource to help parents keep calm at home about the pandemic. IT covers addressing your children’s fears, maintaining healthy routines, and using positive discipline.
  • HealthyChild.org: to consider if your child should wear a mask or not when they return to school (if it’s not mandated). This might not sound like an SEL issue, but if your child finds material on their face to be annoying, it could be. If you can ease them into mask wearing rather than springing that request on them as they return to school, it could reduce the chance of their refusal.
  • Understood.org: has solid advice for updates about the coronavirus here.  There’s also information children who won’t talk about the virus.  And there’s another resource for parents of children who won’t stop talking about COVID-19.
  • World Health Organization: Age-specific health information.
  • UNICEF: Their article about what parents need to know about what a return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic will look like. UNICEF also launched a campaign with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention for everyone to help children return to school safety. Here’s the link to the information for parents.
  • McKinsey & Company:  Safely back to school after coronavirus closures. While parents get a mention, it gives more of a panned back perspective on considerations in reopening schools.
  • Child Mind Institute: Has launched CrisisLogger.org for parents, students, and others to document and share feelings during the COVID-19 crisis. https://crisislogger.org/
  • Countries that have already returned: Here’s a resource page from an Australia state (New South Wales) where students returned en masse to school in late May 2020. It gives you an insight into how they’re managing the onslaught – physical distancing isn’t strongly ‘policed’ in the schoolyard and, where possible students’ desks are spaced out.
  • Kids Helpline: another Australian resource – this guides parents of children going back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19.
  • What does it look like for children returning to school amid the pandemic? Online TV channel KTLA compiled a 6-minute YouTube news video to reveal what’s happening in other countries that have reopened schools.
  • Importance of play: A Finnish education researcher and promoter of the benefits of play for children, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, talks about why children will need recess more than ever when they return to school. He wrote this piece for The Conversation. 
  • Australia again: A national article about helping kids return to school. https://www.abc.net.au/life/helping-kids-with-the-transition-back-to-school/12247052
  • National Association of School Psychologists: This resource doesn’t focus on the return to school (yet), but more about helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19.