CHILDREN have reacted to the news of reopening of schools with paradoxical trepidation and excitement. Whilst they clearly welcome the opportunity to leave behind the physical shackles of lockdown, this return to school will be entirely new. For the majority of children, going back to school after summer break is hard enough — some lose friends who have moved away, many go through physical and emotional changes that require an adjustment, while most children find themselves reinventing peer relationships or having to acquaint themselves with new teachers and classmates.
The post-pandemic return, however, is an unprecedented adjustment. Schools have received government directives on SOPs to follow. However, how big a gap there will be between the planned process and its implementation is anyone’s guess. It is not like a fire or riot drill that we have all practised for years. Aside from directives such as staggered timings for different age groups, multiple shifts, social distancing in class and outside, safe handling of school supplies and lunch boxes, mandatory masks and sanitisation, there are many other aspects of the transition that beg our attention and planning.
Children returning to school are likely to carry back some emotional baggage of anxiety and paranoia. Most of our schools do not have in-house counsellors that may be able to help with the daily well-being of children through this transition. In fact, it is not just children but teachers who may need counselling and support as they learn to equip themselves to take care of children who might be emotionally distraught. Not all children have had a safe and easy time with caretakers who cater to their physical and emotional well-being. Many will return with experiences of grief and loss within the family — loss of life or a parent’s job — or other destabilising factors.
The post-pandemic return is an unprecedented adjustment.
Chances are that everyone will have a story. These narratives are not only important, they are critical in helping children make sense of life experiences and learn the survival tools to keep themselves afloat. Teachers and other staff members will also come back with a narrative of their own. Curriculum demands aside, if we can collectively give shape to a system that addresses these stories and helps develop the tools needed to manage emotions, children and adults might both come out stronger together.
At such a crossroads, our capacity for teamwork, empathy and compassion, gets tested like never before and we need to make tough choices — between chasing an academic goal or keeping a child comfortable and happy through the day, between teaching discipline or relaxing the rules to help children adapt back to the structured school day.
Children may be looking for a safe space to share their stories, and perhaps to make sense of the dizzying amount of information regarding the coronavirus, pouring in their direction every day. A daily ‘check-in’ activity some time during the school day where children get to connect with their emotions and express themselves may be a good place to start. It could be a calming factor for those who have lost the tolerance for a long school day.
During lockdown, most students would have experienced a sharp drop in physical activity, a very relaxed schedule during the day, flexible meal and sleep timings and perhaps family circumstances that allowed little or no time for academic work. Schools might have to be gentler with their demands on children — they will be hungry at odd hours, easily bored without screen time, and perhaps more defiant of authority if they have spent a considerable amount of time on their own at home. Some may be excessively agitated due to screen withdrawal symptoms, hesitant to intermingle after a long time without physical social interaction, the younger ones may experience separation anxiety being away from their parents and so forth. The list may go on but, regardless of the nature of the issue, these personal struggles will manifest themselves in different ways through the behaviour and attitude of children once they are back at school.
Education in schools may need to address personal and social development on an individual level and re-equip children to handle the demands of academic goals. Teaching and learning may have to be more student-centred than before, with emphasis on collaborative learning to immerse children back into their social network.
Animals released into the wild after some time in captivity react in different ways and have to be exposed slowly and gently to their new way of life. Human nature, albeit different, overlaps in some ways with animalistic tendencies. We will literally have to handle our children with ‘kid gloves’ as they walk back into the open, out of the security and confinement of lockdown.
The writer is senior manager, professional development at Oxford University Press, Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020