Returning to School: Smoothing the Transition
The Government announcing the return to school date of 8th March has sent all schools into a fortnight of intensive planning for our students’ return. Whether it’s curriculum planning, the logistics of lateral flow testing and staggered starts, planning around Teacher Assessed Grades or revised risk assessments, there has been what seems an endless ‘to do’ list for school leaders. What we must not forget in all of this ‘stuff’ are the very people we are here to serve; our students.
Whilst sixth form students might be assumed to be the school-aged group who will manage this transition back into school life most easily due to their age, I wanted to take a moment to reflect and consider how we might best support the return of our 16-19 learners by acknowledging it as a significant transition, but one which must be framed in a positive way if we hope to genuinely ‘return’ students to a settled experience of school life.
Recognition of transitions
It is widely acknowledged within psychological study that transitions in life can represent times of increased stress and anxiety. We will all be familiar with lists of the ‘most stressful life events’, most of which are based on a 1967 study which used The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale to score 43 life events and resulted in events such as the death of a spouse, divorce and marital separation, going to prison and the death of a close family member as the most stressful life events. Whilst there are many critics of this study, there is a general acceptance that significant changes in our lives are often coupled with increased stress and anxiety. Covid-19 has clearly been such an event for all of us; some far more acutely than others. When we consider that this has come, for our 16-19 learners, at a time when they are already transitioning into adulthood, with the myriad of changes this encompasses, perhaps our sixth form students might be considered as some of our most vulnerable students, rather than the assumption that (by virtue of their age and maturity compared with their 11-16 peers) they might simply cope better. If we start with this consideration, we will surely be far better prepared to support our sixth form students’ return to school.
Pastoral and support teams have worked tirelessly throughout this lockdown to maintain high levels of support for our students and have done an absolutely incredible job. Phone and video calls to students, parents and external agencies; home visits; offering support or signposting to professional services; recording all contact made and discussing the correct responses to issues raised has meant that pastoral and support teams in schools have never worked harder for our young people. Their efforts should not go unrecognised, nor should we assume that returning to school will mean that this support is no longer required. Our pastoral and support staff now have, in most cases (although some families have been harder to reach), thorough knowledge of how our students have coped with lockdown and any issues they have had to deal with in addition, whether through family illness or bereavement, or other home issues. Life has not stopped due to Covid so our students have had to respond to life in a pandemic in addition to everything else going on in their various home situations; as I have said before, they are role models for us all.
We therefore must ensure we have support available on return for the students we know are already struggling most. We must also recognise that many students will have ‘appeared’ to have coped well when we have checked in on them remotely, but actually had far more to deal with throughout this time than we realised; we cannot assume that it is only the students we have supported intensively during lockdown that require our time in this regard when we return. The role of our tutors and mentors will be key in this – once in-person conversations can be had (hooray!), we may well notice things that had gone completely under the radar. Making our teams aware of this will be the first step in ensuring our students get the support they need with their transition back into school.
There is also another group of students who should not be forgotten, which only really came into my thinking this week, when I joined my Year 12 History lesson Google Meet slightly early and one of my students arrived a few minutes before the others. She explained to me (with her microphone on, which was a lovely novelty that I enjoyed until the others arrived!) that she’d really enjoyed working remotely. She felt that she could work at her own pace and she could ask for individual help more, without fearing she’d “look stupid” in front of her peers. I hadn’t really considered that this might be the case. Due to my own strong preference for in-person teaching and the level of interaction this allows, I had wrongly assumed our students would be equally keen to return. On discussing this with some of our support team, others also cited examples of students who felt this way, or those who felt that the public health risk might still be too great to return so had anxieties in that respect. We must be mindful of the students for whom returning to school is not desirable too.
The final consideration around this idea of returning to school as a significant transition is the fact that it comes at a time for 16-19 learners when they are already in the process of transition in a number of different ways. The obvious one is their collective transition to adulthood which is clearly a complex process for all of them and one which has been blighted by Covid and its removal of all the social experiences and rites of passage that make this stage of life so enjoyable and often simultaneously stressful. We must also be mindful of the different circumstances faced by each year group within our sixth forms.
Our Year 12 students have barely had the chance to transition fully into life in the sixth form. They didn’t get the opportunity to take their exams in Year 11 then just got into the swing of the increased independence of the sixth form and the (socially-distanced) social life this entails, when the January lockdown hit and they were forced into isolation again. Their particular experience of the last year is unique to them; we must acknowledge this and talk to them about how this has felt and how we can move back towards a normality as sixth form students that they have barely really experienced.
For Year 13, theirs is a different mix of transitions again. They have gone through the process of applying for post-18; whether it’s universities, apprenticeships or job applications, they have all planned for what they are expecting to be the most significant and exciting transition of their lives - their decision about what to do when they leave school. This is their chance to choose precisely what they want to do next and where this will send them, a decision they have been researching, preparing for and planning the practicalities of for months. They deserved the collective support Year 13 students can usually offer one another through discussing offers received and responses to these. Whilst we have been able to offer support in this respect remotely, this is a poor relative of the usual collective discussions in-person which help our students clarify their thoughts around this huge decision. Year 13 are also experiencing the ‘limbo’ of the situation around Teacher Assessed Grades. The lack of certainty that remains about the awarding of grades, even after the government response to the consultation released this week, means their transition back into school is even more challenging.
Smoothing the transition
Whilst acknowledging our students’ return to school as a significant transition, it is useful to consider advice around transition management. The following ten tips for managing transition are taken from Psychology Today and might provide a useful framework for schools in supporting students’ return.
1. Recognize that transitions hold a special place in your life memories
We must celebrate our students’ return and make this memorable. They have missed out on so many memorable moments that sixth form life should have brought so we should seize the opportunity to welcome them back and show that we have missed them. Let’s create some positive memories.
2. View stress not as a threat, but as a challenge
We need to consider reframing the narrative. We must show our students that we recognise it has been really tough for them, but that challenges can be good in terms of helping us to grow.
3. Appreciate the benefits of change
The changes our students have had to respond to have been huge – congratulate them for navigating the changes so far and encourage them to recognise what they have learned and achieved in doing so.
4. Remember the times you’ve successfully navigated a previous transition
Our sixth form students have all experienced multiple lockdowns and changes in social restrictions throughout the last year. Remind them of this and remind them, too, that they came out stronger each time.
5. Turn to your support network
Ensure you communicate that support is available and direct students to sources of it. You may have a team of staff, school or external counselling available, or online resources. Our brilliant Head of Psychology kindly offered to set up a Mental Health and Wellbeing Google Classroom during this lockdown and our students have engaged well with this. Consider whether support in this way, i.e. remotely, may still be valuable. If students have engaged with this method, why would we abandon it upon our return?
6. Prepare, prepare, prepare
This tip is a difficult one to enact in our schools as the notice we have had for school return has been short. We can, however, consider our communications with students and the messages we are giving each time we communicate to ensure we are providing clarity, positivity and reassurance. Some of this will be around practical questions, such as where students will be allowed to go in their study periods or the wearing of masks. If students know what to expect, their return will be easier to manage.
7. Use a transition to reflect on where your life has been, and where it’s going
Students must be given the opportunity to reflect upon their return. This could be done in numerous ways – in tutor time, individual mentor meetings or student surveys after a couple of weeks back in school. Try to build in more than one opportunity – one may be very obviously asking students to directly reflect, whereas another may allow reflection to happen more subtly.
8. Realise that change is inherent to life
Our students will arguably be more aware of this fact than any sixth formers before. We should be able to tell them that ‘change happens’ but should remain sensitive to the fact that, for many of our students, they will have undergone far more significant, even life-altering, changes than others.
9. Focus on the positive aspects
It is possible to both recognise the level of difficulty that Covid has caused but also celebrate our students’ return. Consider what they have achieved throughout this time – how can we show them we recognise this and that we’re proud of them? This is potentially extremely powerful in settling our students upon their return.
10. Use role models to inspire you through this transition
I was delighted to see this was one of Psychology Today’s tips. In my previous blog, I argued why our sixth form students should be seen as role models. Their return to school is a prime opportunity to embed this message, alongside acknowledging role models more widely in society who have been revealed through their actions during the last year. Consider national examples such as Marcus Rashford or Sir Captain Tom Moore for sure, but local examples will be equally, if not more, inspiring. Better still, if they’re from our own school communities; all schools will have multiple examples - be sure to celebrate them publicly.
If we can employ even just some of the strategies above, surely our sixth form students’ return will be smoother and more successful and we can give them the positive memories of this important stage in their lives that they so richly deserve.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_82.htm