This week, I spent a lot of my Tuesday working with a new student. I had worked extensively with her when she was five and six but it was her birthday on Monday, so now seven years old. Due to our current restrictions and the fact that our families are struggling with the economic impact of the global pandemic, there is not the usual special day a seven year old would have for a milestone birthday of seven. This was compounded by the fact that this young lady also has a diagnosis of autism so sees the world in a very different way and positively expressing her emotions is a big piece of ongoing work.
I was called to support her as she was by her workstation trying to throw anything she could get her hands on into the rest of the classroom, not particularly at anyone but to create attention on her. So I sat on the floor with her and had a couple of trays half heartedly launched at me and I just sat talking about things in general, then offered for her to come with me. She thought about this for a while, picked up my hand and started to walk out of the classroom.
Having worked with her previously, I know that getting her to do something different is the route into trying to get her to express herself. The therapy dog was in my shared office so being able to have some time with the dog was just what she needed as it was very calming. Eventually we got to the point that we were talking about her feelings about yesterday, the pandemic, birthdays, how awful life with the virus was. How the government were making rules that really stunk, birthdays being different, gifts being difficult to get, and how sharing birthday cake in class was impossible at the minute. In all these roundabout discussions she wanted to get rid of the virus, I said that would be excellent and that probably if she could do that everyone in the world would make her the Queen of the Universe. The conversation then went off at a tangent to llamas and how you can use them as guard dogs as they were very protective so she became Queen of the Universe with guard llamas. This is the part where you expect I say, she went back into class and was great for the rest of the day but she wasn’t. She had not been in control for much of her birthday and wanted to have some control. I was able to facilitate this in a negotiated way, thinking about her needs, the next day was better but still had it’s tricky parts.
This is a seven-year-old in school being able to access one-to-one attention from an adult who understood how terrible she was feeling and what had contributed to those feelings. I was able to listen to, validate and acknowledge those feelings. My worry is for those students who are still using the virtual world to access education at the minute, I’m not sure they are getting the same experience with their emotions.
As an educator when I walked into the classroom I could easily see the distress of the seven year old. If she was accessing learning at home, she would have refused to do any work at home with her family and they would struggle to engage her in anything meaningful. Virtually her teacher would have no idea what was going on, unless the family were aware and able to share.
There is a huge worry about the impact of schools being closed and virtual learning on the progress of students. Especially in disadvantaged circumstances as well as the equality of access to technological resources to support learning, but not enough thought has been put into social and emotional learning in all this. In school we can have lessons on self awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, we can transfer these to the virtual world in some form or another. It might not be perfect but it is something, that’s the bit I am not worried about. The element that is missing from virtual learning is the interactions between the teacher and students where you can pick up on difficulties, where you can explore informal situations, these are the makeup of a classroom where the whole child is being thought about.
We knew that if we supported families, they then had the capacity to support their children better.
Virtual school is also happening within a home environment where there is unlikely to be a wide variety of opportunities to experience difference and in our classrooms we generally have a range of students, where acceptance of differences can be explored, practiced and applied easily.
In a school district that is still working virtually, I know that they have put together schedules with classes and learning experiences to cater for the needs of their students. There are busy days everyday for our students in curriculum based activities and some even have SEL lessons going on. That’s fantastic, but has time been made for an adult from the school to have one to one time with each student regularly, or is their day completely full of lessons? One of the things that our families really liked when our school was closed was the regular weekly phone contact someone from school would make to support the family. Yes, we did end up talking about things that were not always directly ‘learning’ focused for the families. Although, helping solve a housing/food/other problem, it meant that the families were more able to focus on the learning and time they spent with their children. We particularly worked with our families as we knew that if we supported them well, they then had the capacity to support their children better. If we had to close school tomorrow we have plans in place to offer support to our families, and some of the school day is given to staff making individual contact with students based on their needs at least once a week.
Back to the Queen of the universe with her guard llamas, her birthday felt very unspecial and understandably she was angry with everyone and everything including the virus. She was able to access an adult face to face who could work with all the communication that was spilling out of her. This is not as easy in the virtual world that schools are in at the moment.
If you want a simple way to gauge how your students are feeling with everything, birthdays, learning and the virus take a look at Pulse’s Survey Builder. You can create your own quick surveys and ask the questions that matter the most to your school.
Download this survey template to find out how your students are really feeling and if they need to reach out for help.