LAST SEPTEMBER schools returned in unprecedented circumstances. The global pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted education services right across the country and, in many cases, made many sudden and drastic changes to children and young people’s learning. Many pupils will have been out of full-time school since March and, even for those who have attended over the summer, the start to the academic year will look very different to previous years. Schools are expected to open to all pupils from September and to ensure that this is done as safely as possible, it is extremely likely that new routines and expectations will be introduced, and changes will be made to the physical environment.
Ensuring that all pupils with additional needs and vulnerabilities have a positive and successful return to school is a key priority for school leaders and teachers. Children who have been adopted or are going through the care system may face additional, hidden challenges adjusting to changes and uncertainty during the pandemic. In July, the Whole School SEND Consortium hosted a roundtable to discuss securing a successful transition for looked after children returning to school in September. A free video recording and supporting resource pack is available on the SEND gateway.
This discussion featured a range of parents, educators, and experts, and included a recorded interview with Lewis*, a young person, who shared his experience of COVID-19.
Throughout the discussion several key themes emerged that educators need to be mindful of and look out for in looked after children:
- They may have high levels of anxiety, which effects engagement with learning – for example they may not be
able to concentrate or actively listen to instructions •
- They may not be proactive in asking for help and may reject offers of help, as they may wish to avoid feelings of helplessness
- Certain topics within the curriculum might cause stress, for example ancestry, family trees and evacuees
To pre-empt issues arising from these areas, teachers should proactively reach out to looked after children and their carers to share and explain any changes to the routine or environment. As part of these discussions sharing videos and images can help to create a picture of the “new normal.” Conducting these conversations and information exchanges in an open and positive way is vital. Emphasising what will stay the same as well as what will change will also be helpful. Keeping children informed at all stages will reduce anxiety, uncertainty and help them adjust to their new routines.One important factor to be mindful of is that some children who are looked after may have had a positive time during the COVID-19 summer. They may have had longer to build relationships with their carers and flourished in the new routines. Assuming that all experiences will have been negative is not helpful. Teachers should address lockdown openly and inclusively, allowing children to share any experiences they had duringthis time. For example, Lewis* shared his experience of lockdown:It affected me in a very good way. I have been finding organisation better and my work has been due and there has been no background noise or shouting… I’ve managed to get more friends but because I’m not had to worry about homework I’ve had more time to do things I enjoy. I’ve just set up a Minecraft club.When asked about how Lewis felt about “going back” and seeing his friends “in real life” Lewis responded:
I’m happy that I’ll actually get to see them, but then anxious that the relationship might change.When asked how the school could help him return, Lewis stated:
I’m hoping that they will help me with my online planner that I started using, and I’m hoping that they will help with people taunting me.
Continuing to have a member of staff who he could speak to about issues and the continuity of existing support systems were also very important to Lewis. As Lewis demonstrates, children and young people can articulate their unique and nuanced experiences and feelings. Understanding, welcoming, and responding to these is vital.
Teachers should ask with genuine interest about how the period has been and seek to understand how the young person feels about coming back to school.
To support parents and carers to have constructive discussions with educators after a period of absence, whether related to COVID-19 or other circumstances, the Whole School SEND Consortium has also coproduced a leaflet with carers, young people and families to provide a framework for discussion around the transition back into school. You can find this under the ‘Resource’ page on the SEND Gateway website: www. sendgateway.org.uk
What we heard from the roundtable was that, for looked after pupils and those who had been adopted, there are increased risks around securing a successful return, which compound existing known risks. However, by proactively engaging with young people and their carers as equal partners, teachers can mitigate against these and support all pupils to return successfully. *name changed*