After experiencing months of lockdowns and remote learning, teachers and students in New South Wales and Victoria are gearing up for a return to the classroom in Term 4.
The Student Wellbeing Hub team recently hosted a webinar Supporting secondary students through lockdown and beyond
to help educators support the transition back to in-person teaching and learning. The webinar was presented by a panel of guest speakers including Andrew Phillips and Jo Johnson, wellbeing practitioners at a secondary college in Melbourne’s south east; Dale Ritchie, assistant principal of a secondary college in Melbourne’s north west; and Dr Lyn O’Grady, community psychologist and regular Hub contributor.
Over a one-hour session, the panellists shared tips and tricks for helping students get back on track when they return to the classroom. Here are the key takeaways.
What to expect when returning to the classroom
Jo Johnson noted that their school was impressed by the resilience of some students.
‘We had kids who we were worried about [going into lockdown and remote learning]. Many of those kids surprised us. They showed amazing resilience and did not just do well, but thrived in that environment,’ she said.
‘Getting them back to school has been, in some cases, problematic. But we suddenly had the strength to lean into and to work with them. The ability to communicate is really powerful.’
In the instances where students are reluctant to return, Dale Ritchie’s school is setting them up on a reduced timetable.
‘We've already organised with parents that some kids will only be in for a couple of mornings a week. If that just means walking in every morning and then walking out again, that's fine. If that just means coming in at recess so that they can hear the hustle bustle, that's fine, too. It's really what is the best for that individual child to reengage with the school.’
Dale’s school in northwest Melbourne was hard-hit in 2020, becoming Victoria’s most locked-down school. During the return to the classroom toward the end of Term 4, he began to notice differences in some students.
‘Be particularly aware of quiet girls. When we returned from more than a term in lockdown last year, they showed the most severe anxiety, particularly the girls in 7 and 8. They were scared that they couldn't do the work anymore, that they disappointed their teachers, and that they couldn't achieve.
‘It was a little different for our younger boys in those year levels,’ Dale added. ‘We could pick up on their anxieties a little bit more because they tended to demonstrate through outward expressions of behaviour. They found it difficult to maintain attention, and there was minor bullying because they weren’t coping with being back in the classroom.’
Last year, Dale noticed that Year 7 students required additional support to get ahead.
‘Many were just finding their feet at secondary school and then were locked down. Some of them are going to be really nervous about returning to secondary school again, so they'll need help readjusting and finding their friendship groups again.
Their secondary college set up team-building days for years 7, 8 and 9 students to help the students rebuild those connections.
‘We didn’t worry about normal classes,’ Dale noted. ‘I think, for teachers, it's partly about getting to know your students again, because we really need to determine whether there are significant changes in classroom behaviour, in their participation and in their willingness to have a go.’
Practical ideas for supporting the transition back to school
Treat the return to school as an adjustment period
A key theme that emerged from the discussion was the need to focus on celebrating togetherness.
The three panellists agreed that schools should offer fun activities to help ease students back into the school environment. For each of them, this means bumping learning as the top priority and focusing on building wellbeing and community.
Jo reflected: ‘Sometimes, as teachers, we have a tendency to come in and say, "These are the rules.” We were really careful not to do that. Instead, we said “You're in a safe place and we're going to do some fun activities.”’
She added: ‘I think that the order of priority should be mental health, socialisation, relationships – and then learning. Our teachers were all lined up, ready to welcome students with big smiles on their faces, understanding that wellbeing is key over everything else.’
This idea was reinforced by Dale, who considers the return to school a transitional period for students and teachers alike.
'Give students the opportunity to get to know each other again,’ he suggested. ‘Make sure there's time for students to have a laugh with each other in every lesson. Get students to work in groups. If a kid's not participating, get them on a table with kids that are normally animated and who are going to have fun.'
Community psychologist Dr Lyn O’Grady affirmed that treating the return to school as an adjustment period was an effective approach to supporting students.
‘Part of mental health is feeling like you’re connected and you belong, but also that you're purposeful and that you're achieving. And that obviously needs to be realistic and manageable and safe – learning needs to be safe.’
For Dale, building connections with students extends beyond the classroom and into the school yard.
'We encouraged as many teachers as possible to get out into the yard during recess and lunchtime, walking around and just saying hello to kids, whether they were on yard duty or not.’
Dale’s school also encouraged teachers to take note of and engage with students who were isolated during break times, and to keep an eye on them over a few days to see if they need additional support to re-engage.
Create a positive, hopeful learning environment
Dale’s school wanted to celebrate what the whole school had been achieved during lockdown, to create a positive, hopeful environment. ‘We decided it was necessary to spend the first few sessions reflecting on what we achieved as a whole during lockdown and how great it was to be back,’ he shared.
Many students will feel anxious about returning to school, particularly those who found it difficult to learn in the remote setting.
‘Acknowledge that it was really hard, and that there's plenty of opportunity to relearn,’ Dale recommended. ‘And most importantly, don't test students on what they did during lockdown.’
As a psychologist, Lyn suggested focusing on small feats that make teachers and students alike regain a sense of control.
She says it’s important to focus on the day-to-day experiences to ground students in the present, and encourages asking questions about what students are looking forward to in their immediate future.
‘It’s hard for any of us to think about what next year will look like. Everything's been uncertain, so the more predictability we can bring, the more realistic expectations, the more fun and relief students will feel that we're back. That will go a long way in helping everyone's mental health – that includes teachers, school staff and mental health practitioners, as well as students and families.’
You might feel inclined to constantly check in on your students, Andrew Phillips explained, but shifting the explicit focus away from mental health and wellbeing will create a familiar, manageable setting for students.
'Ask questions to start with – not big questions, not questions about their mental health or how they're coping – but questions about when's the last time they ate their favourite food? Or if they could have any ice-cream in the world, what would it be? Build relationships from those fun little questions.’
Help students make sense of this time
Speaking about students in the senior years, Andrew said it’s important to help them learn if and how the lockdown time has changed their goals.
‘It’s about engaging with our Year 11 and 12 students to ask, “What are your goals? What were your goals before we got to this? Does it feel like they’ve changed?” It’s essentially empowering the student to take back control of their life and the decisions they want to make. A lot of those won’t have changed.’
Andrew noted that if there are any patterns emerging in student career choices, it’s a positive shift to healthcare or helping professions. These industries have been at the forefront of the pandemic, and students are wanting to be part of the change.
Jo built on the concept of helping students reflect on the time by focusing on values-based discussions. For her, it’s about asking these questions: ‘What do you value? Let’s go back to the core of what’s important to you. What are your strengths that will line up with those values?’
She believes that if students can put those two together, it will give them direction during an uncertain time.
Create new memorable experiences with students
Last year, as Jo and Andrew’s school returned to in-person learning, the principal teamed up with student leaders to host school-wide competitions.
One successful activity that was introduced was using Kahoot!
to create a game around COVID safety in the school. Based on questions around washing hands and keeping distance, the game created a fun, engaging and interactive alternative to walking students through the COVID-safe principles.
The winning home group won house points and every student's favourite lunchtime activity: pizza.
While it is important to create new experiences for all students, Year 11 and 12 students in particular have missed many traditions and rites of passage in their final years of secondary school due to lockdowns. For Andrew, it was important to find new ways to make up for lost traditions.
‘We set up photo booths on a performing arts stage and rostered times that students could come and have their photos taken with their families,’ he said. ‘It wasn't the same, but it was something – and it was memorable.’
It doesn’t matter if the new experiences are big or small – it just provides students with a positive, tangible experience during a difficult year.
‘It is incredible how much a pizza lunch means to a group of year 12s,’ Dale laughed. ‘They’re all together, having fun and chatting away.’
Leverage the whole school network
Each of the presenters noted that it’s important to involve the whole school community and keep open communication with teachers.
'My message is to have a belief in the system that you’ve got at your school,’ Dale said, before sharing the difficulty of trying to help every child all of the time. He noted that it’s important for teachers to understand that where they cannot help, other teachers or support staff will be able to step in as needed.
Jo echoed this sentiment, stating: ‘It’s really important that teachers communicate about their students. Sometimes we think a student might have just found lockdown difficult in our subject, not realising that it’s across the board.’
Agreeing that schools need to work together to move beyond the lockdown, Lyn said: ‘Schools needs to bring everybody back into the fold because it's been really hard for everybody in different ways. We have to look after ourselves and have our own supports and supervision to do that as well because it is such a strange time.’ She suggested asking, ‘How do we be clear about our roles to work together and make this manageable?'
For three days a week during lockdown, Dale’s school held morning staff briefings of about 15 to 20 minutes. Each meeting focused on a different question, such as ‘What’s your favourite book?’ or ‘Where would you rather be?’ The teachers changed their virtual background with an image of their favourite book or favourite holiday spot, which created a sense of community despite the isolation of working from home. ‘There’s been quite a lot of laughs to start the day. I think that’s been great because it’s helped people start the day on a positive note.’
It’s important that schools focus on building this positivity among teachers, so that it can flow from them through every class to every student.
‘Do your own work around hope so you can share it in an authentic way with your students,’ Lyn recommended.
Jo pointed out that this was the first time in our history that we’ve all shared a trauma-inducing experience, which has increased our ability to recognise mental health issues or struggling students.
‘We have a level of compassion that we as teachers might not have had before,’ Jo shared. ‘Going into the future, we can really learn from that.’
As schools across New South Wales and Victoria get ready to return to the classroom, Lyn’s final words of advice were to be curious.
‘If we're curious, we're open and going to notice things that will stop us assuming. We need to recognise that this is such a unique and strange time that we keep hearing about, so curiosity can be really helpful.’
Want to hear more? Catch up on the whole webinar on the Student Wellbeing Hub. Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity.