Michael O’Kane discusses the importance of nurturing pupils when they eventually return to primary school following the pandemic
First thing is first, the return to school must only happen when it is safe for children and staff to do so.
It looks like we are edging towards this with the correct guidelines and protocols in place, similar to what we had in place in primary schools in the North of Ireland from September to Christmas.
The majority of children of primary school age haven’t seen their classmates since mid-December, maybe longer for some children if they or their families were isolating in December. Couple this with the miserable weather at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere and it means that most children have been couped up inside with little or no interaction with other children and possibly no opportunities to explore the outside world.
There has been a complete loss of structure for most children.
The return to school needs to take account of this and we as educators, for the first few weeks back, need to ensure that children get the opportunity to flourish, to rebuild their relationships with their peers and adults, and to have fun.
In the North of Ireland, if the return to primary school occurs before Easter, then this gives us time to plan a way forward for the remaining few weeks and months of the academic year. The children may be back for 3-4 weeks before the Easter break. It is crucial that we look at how we can help them build relationships and have fun.
The teachers and classroom assistants in each school are the best placed cohort of people to plan this – they are the experts.
Outdoor learning, play and physical education
The weather is beginning to turn for the better. If it doesn’t, children can still get outside. Get their coats and their wellies on. A Key Stage 1 class could go outside for the morning and work together in the playground to make 2D shapes by laying down on the ground and joining up to make the outline of the shape.
The Foundation Stage children love play based learning and indeed outdoor play. Bring the sand tray and the water tray outside. They could also learn about mathematical concepts by ordering twigs they find from the longest to the shortest.
Think about the timetable. It can be changed significantly; we have proved that since September. Build in at least two PE lessons a week for each class. Our PE coordinator in our school ensured this in September and it was brilliant to see the children out and about the school grounds.
Nurture in schools – and funding for it
A nurturing approach in primary school is all about providing children with opportunities to develop their social and emotional skills in order to prepare them with the positive relationships they need as they grow. It also ensures that the children are in the very best place to learn, a place we need them to be as we look at catching up with the schoolwork they have missed over the last year.
In the North of Ireland, we are extremely lucky to have the Nurturing Approaches in Schools Service from the Education Authority which helps schools develop the six key nurturing principles that benefit everyone in the school community, particularly those in need. This needs to be rolled out to all schools in the country.
Catching up with learning
Make no mistake about it. One of the best places to build positive relationships and to have fun is in the classroom. Every day in school from September to Christmas I walked the corridors and witnessed the forging of positive relationships between children and adults in the school. There was a real thirst for learning and a buzz about coming to school. We fully expect to see that again, and hopefully soon.
School staff are experts in understanding where each and every child is at when it comes to their learning. Over the first 3-4 weeks back, hopefully before Easter, teachers’ observations and informal in-class assessments, like the use of formative assessment apps like Kahoot or group reading activities, will give adults in school a baseline of where the children are at.
After Easter, there will be a perfect opportunity to run more diagnostic, standardised testing which will give teachers a broad range of data pinpointing the exact gaps in learning. This is a very good position to be going into in May and June when planning for the new academic year in September.
Please remember, if you are running standardised tests in April and May, get the children outside afterwards for a bit of fun, a ladybird hunt, or even a game of football rounders.
Michael O’Kane is headmaster of St. Colmcille’s Primary School & Nursery Unit in Claudy in Ireland. He can’t wait to get back to school as normal, when it is safe to do so.