How can schools nurture children as they start formal schooling during a pandemic?

Starting formal schooling is a significant life event for children and families. In 2021 schools will be receiving young children who have had significant life events in their year prior to school and as a result are likely to be a cohort unlike any other that teachers or schools have encountered before. Schools will need to take extra steps and give special consideration of the impact of these events as they prepare to welcome children starting school in 2021. Early Learning Services will also need to consider different strategies to support children as they prepare for school.

Catastrophic bushfires, smoke hazes, drought and the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic—resulting in disrupted participation in early learning programs for many children across Australia—have led to major changes for families and children as communities deal with the repercussions. This is a unique time for children preparing to transition to formal schooling. As a cohort they are likely to present teachers and school communities with unique challenges as they adjust to school life and make sense of their current world.

Families, schools, early learning services and school age care services have supported children as they have navigated many changes this year: multiple transitions in learning from home to education and care settings to home again, increased time with primary care givers during remote learning, reduced social contact with peers and others and an increased focus on hygiene practices. Children will need continued support as they start formal schooling in person or online to adjust to changes in daily routines, meeting new adults and different learning environments.

Teachers will need to consider children’s physical, emotional, social and learning needs as they create a sense of belonging through building safe and welcoming environments, whether face to face or online. Creating a sense of belonging when children start school assists them to feel respected and accepted in that setting (Walton & Brady, 2017). Children will take their cues from events, experiences and relationships that occur as they begin their first year at school. The Early Years Learning Framework recognises the importance of establishing strong partnerships between families and schools to provide continuity of learning between home and school (DEEWR, 2009).  Schools and teachers will need to be ready and responsive as they help children start formal schooling.

For schools and early learning services to assist this unique cohort of children to begin formal school three things should be a priority:

1.Prioritise children’s wellbeing

Children may currently have a greater sense of anxiety about change which can affect their wellbeing as they start formal schooling. To provide a sense of security for children:

  • Schools can offer a transition program for children prior to starting. Schools will need to be innovative and adaptive with transition practices to cater for current Covid-19 restrictions in many parts of Australia. Where face to face transition programs cannot be held alternative ideas could be to:
  • offer live, online transition programs using online video tools
  • create a video message from the Principal, Teachers and Education Assistants
  • hold individual online meetings with children and families
  • create a live virtual school tour to show the environment and explain important information such as uniforms, canteen, library etc.
  • create a ‘getting ready for school’ package that can be sent home that might include a first day social story, staff photos, a simple activity to complete and an information booklet
  • create a podcast recording and send the link with photos via email
  • create a dedicated page on the schools website for new students and families to easily find information
  • schedule a live online Q and A forum
  • ask children to draw or write about their expectations of school and post back to the teacher
    • hold online meetings with small groups of children and families so that they can meet and make new friends.
  • If possible, teachers could visit the early childhood education and care settings children currently attend to meet them and their families.
  • A focus on social and emotional skills can also assist children to cope with the emotions they are experiencing. The Be You Mental Health Initiative provides knowledge, resources and strategies for educators to support children to achieve their best possible mental health and wellbeing.
  • Developing teaching and learning programs that are trauma-aware and offer enough flexibility to accommodate differing capacities over the child’s first 12 months and possibly beyond.
  • Consider what is already available within the school and how it could be bolstered to build confidence, connection, belonging and resilience among the 2021 cohort.For example, buddy programs, perceptual motor/fundamental movement skills programs and existing social-emotional programs that address wellbeing strategies such as mindfulness, mindset and resilience.

2.Form responsive relationships with children and families

At the best of times, communication and collaboration with families to learn more about their worlds are essential to bridge the home and school learning environments. For the children entering school in 2021, teachers will need, more than ever, to draw on innovative strategies to build those bridges and to develop a nuanced understanding of each child’s context and a sense of the group’s capacity as a whole. Each group of children will have a varied range of skills and knowledge and the variations are likely to be greater due to the disruptions to learning caused by 2019-2020 summer bushfires and Covid-19.

Acknowledging and building on children’s prior experiences assists children to feel confident, safe and secure as they connect new events, places, and understandings with what they are familiar with. Many children may have been withdrawn from early childhood education and care settings for large parts of the year or completely withdrawn by families juggling changed work and income arrangements. This will make it more challenging for teachers to learn about and connect with these children’s prior learning experiences. More time and resources may need to be set aside and more innovative strategies developed by schools and teachers in order to connect with families and children.

Schools can:

  • Use a parent/carer survey to gather information about children’s wellbeing and prior learning experiences during periods of remote learning.
  • Meet and speak with parents/carers via phone or video meetings
  • Provide tips to parents/carers to prepare children for the transition and separation from parents/carers
  • Share and learn with families about mindset and how to assist children to develop a growth mindset
  • If possible, offer an event that combines fun for children and families and a chance for teachers to interact and learn about children in a relaxed environment. For example, a morning tea or sausage sizzle at the school, a music morning, drawing and painting sessions, story time or outdoor games.

 3.Develop a growth mindset in children

It is not hard to find the negative at the moment so a concerted effort to have a more positive view is needed. Our mindset is the lense with which we interpret everyday events and it influences our thoughts and behaviours. Teachers and schools play an important role in shaping children’s mindset.  There are two types of mindsets identified by Dweck (1999; 2016), a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities can change as a result of effort, perseverance and practice (Dweck, 2016). We might call these people ‘glass half-full’ learners, as they demonstrate more resilience when it comes to getting over failures and setbacks. People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities don’t change—these are fixed and whatever they do won’t lead to success (Dweck, 2016). They get upset by mistakes, avoid challenging tasks as they worry about failure and not looking smart. These two mindsets sit at either end of a continuum and we fluctuate between them dependent on our beliefs about our abilities.

Having a growth mindset supports the development of social-emotional skills and strengthens children’s learning and wellbeing(Darling-Hammond, Flook, Cook-Harvey, Barron & Osher, 2020; Dweck, 1999). A growth mindset helps children to build confidence, adjust to change, focus on problem solving, recognise the power of effort and resilience and learn from mistakes.

Teachers and schools can create an environment that values and encourages growth. This can be achieved by modelling and using growth-fostering language and practices such as:

  • emphasising the learning process and focused effort
  • nurturing a culture that encourages inquiry and risk
  • teaching children how their brain can grow
  • framing mistakes as part of the learning journey
  • providing strategies for struggle
  • communicating high expectations
  • being a growth-mindset role model.

This resource provides further guidance on how teachers and families can assist children to develop a growth mindset.

During this time of uncertainty, being innovative in connecting with families, prioritising children’s wellbeing, and assisting children to develop a growth mindset will assist schools to be responsive as they support children to begin formal schooling in 2021.

References

  • Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 1–44.
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.
  • http://k10outline.scsa.wa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/4629/EYLF_complete_doc.pdf
  • Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success (Updated ed.). New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
  • Walton, G. M., & Brady, S. T. (2017). The many questions of belonging. In A. J. Elliot, C. S. Dweck, & D. S. Yeager (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation: Theory and application (p. 272–293). The Guilford Press.

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Fiona Boylan

Fiona Boylan is currently a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. Fiona is now researching the implementation of fixed and growth mindset theory in the early years context for her PhD and has presented and published her research work in Australia.

One thought on “How can schools nurture children as they start formal schooling during a pandemic?”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Fiona for this very informative post on how we can best support children who will be starting formal school in 2021. Great to read all the practical and wise strategies that you have identified.

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