With the roadmap for easing lockdown laid out in front of us and vaccines being rolled out across the country, it is starting to feel like we may see some semblance of normality sometime soon. We know, however, that we still have difficult times ahead and that schools will continue to be under intense pressure to close the attainment gap, particularly for children with poor language skills, that have undoubtedly been exacerbated further by the pandemic. This is all while continuing to deal with the weekly (and sometimes daily) challenges that the pandemic is throwing at us.
For many, the second period of lockdown and tiered restrictions, followed by a third lockdown, has been much harder than the first period in March 2020, and it is felt that it may have had an even bigger impact on pupil attainment. Rather than all or most pupils being at home as during the first lockdown, the more recent lockdowns have been characterised by constant change and disruption, resulting in huge anxiety for children and teaching staff alike. There has been a loss of routine and structure for many pupils, which has resulted in loss of skills such as toileting, using a knife and fork, or the ability to focus and sustain attention to task. Many children may also feel that they have lost friendships and relationships with their friends and teaching staff, with many feeling abandoned. So many have had to deal with bereavement and illness in their families and are hearing about these frightening topics on a daily basis.
We cannot overestimate the impact of these losses for the children that we work with. When children return to school in the next few days, we need to think about what they really need from us now. Barry Carpenter (the first Professor of Mental Health in England) and Matthew Carpenter have recommended that children need a Recovery Curriculum. Yes, children need support to recover the knowledge that they have lost, but overwhelmingly many will need support to build their emotional resilience and to remember how to learn in a school environment.
For pupils with SLCN, there is an added layer of difficulty, in that they will struggle to fully understand the complex, and often abstract, concepts and information around the pandemic. They also don’t have the spoken language skills to be able to express how they are feeling or to ask questions to gain information or clarify their understanding. They have been unable to rely on their language and communication skills to navigate this difficult time.
The Recovery Curriculum outlines 5 levers that will enable children to get back to being active participants in their learning and it is important to think about how we can achieve these for our children with SLCN:
It is important to have a focus on rebuilding relationships with pupils, as the trusting relationship between teacher and pupil, or TA and pupil, is essential to building a safe learning environment. Even if pupils have had regular contact with their teaching staff face to face or remotely, this has not been the same. It is increasingly being recognised that online teaching doesn’t have the same level of social interaction as face-to-face teaching, and time will need to be invested in rebuilding this. For children with SLCN, prior to the pandemic it was often typical for one member of staff, usually a speech and language HLTA, to complete targeted interventions with the child and to know the specific strategies needed to support them. Where pupils are educated in different bubbles and with different staff, with frequent changes to this set up, it is important that all staff working with the child understand their strengths and difficulties, including the key strategies needed to support them. It is important to ensure that there is an effective way for this information to be disseminated to staff. This will support pupils with SLCN to form effective relationships with other members of staff and enable them to engage more successfully in their learning, with support strategies in place in all their learning contexts.
Constant disruptions and changes for pupils, and teaching staff, mean that school communities also need rebuilding. All pupils will have had very varied experiences of being taught in school and being supported at home, so it is important to listen to their experiences in order to determine the support they need going forward. For children with SLCN, the best way to support them to be included in the school community, is to become a communication friendly school. Look out for the newest edition of The Link magazine 19, currently available online and landing in primary schools across the country this month. This edition focuses on how schools can become communication friendly to best support pupils with SLCN.
We need to rebuild children’s confidence in their ability to learn and to be active learners. Create a safe learning environment for all children where they can experiment, make mistakes, and ask questions to clarify their understanding. Make it clear that there are times when we all don’t understand what we need to do or what something means, and we need to be able to ask for help. This is important for all children to support their learning, but particularly for children with SLCN as they will frequently have difficulty understanding spoken information. Visual supports such as confidence indicators are a great way to support children to be able to indicate when they are not sure what they need to do and to ask for help. This will support all students to rebuild their confidence as learners.
Children have been hearing about the virus, about severe illness and often about death during the pandemic, so it is important that Covid-19 is discussed openly with them to build their understanding and to try and reduce anxiety. For children with SLCN, the concept of a virus that you cannot see can be very difficult to understand, so it is important to use visuals to support their understanding and make the concepts more concrete. You can download a free copy of our social story ‘A Handwashing Story’ from our Parent Portal website, which supports understanding and provides reassurance. https://speechandlanguage.info/parents/2020-08-12-a-hand-washing-story
For many children, what they are looking forward to most about being in school is seeing their friends and rebuilding those relationships, seeing their teachers and TAs and working with them again. So much of our self-image is built up through our interactions with others and pupils need time to ‘just be’ with their peers and interacting with adults to build up their confidence and self-esteem. For some, being in a classroom for an extended period of time may now be difficult and could result in anxiety and challenging behaviour. They will need support to manage this and develop their ability to self-regulate, for example having a safe space outside the classroom to go to or being given a special job to do.
Without addressing children’s social, emotional and mental health, including their ability to reintegrate into learning and to feel confident and happy at school, we will be unable to support their learning.
For more information about the Recovery Curriculum visit:
Think Piece – A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic https://www.evidenceforlearning.net/recoverycurriculum/