Preparing for the Post-COVID School Climate
In this blogpost a member of the Steering Group of the Alternative Provision Research Network shares with us why it is so important for mainstream schools to listen to the behaviour of the child once students return to whole school working environments.
The life-alterations that have been forced upon us through COVID’s impact have meant a multitude of change in all areas of life. The overall day to day anxiety of a global pandemic will have impacted everyone’s mental health through the lack of normality, excitement of future plans, suppression of seeing family and friends as well as cancelling events that play a crucial part of self-identity and excitement to ‘keep going’. The continuous changing circumstances have challenged schools and their staff especially as they have had to mould any developments that the virus has caused – continuing to support the communities they serve in ever creative yet health and safety-dependent ways.
Due to all of this change, when schools do return to all pupils accessing on-site learning, the environment that staff and pupils are coming back to may look relatively familiar, aside from COVID-necessary measures. However, we are all returning having been through an experience that none of us could have foreseen or pre-empted. Therefore, there are key elements of school life that will need to be reassessed, conversations to be had about the staple parts of individual school’s environments and culture that will need to be looked at from a new viewpoint.
One of the staple elements – one of the most important school systems to be re-evaluated – is a school’s behaviour policy. Regardless of the school context, a school’s behaviour policy is a cornerstone that works within the framework of a school’s structure. Often it connects with learning outcomes, wellbeing initiatives, reward systems, SMSC links as well as PSHE/Citizenship curriculum. This behaviour policy will have links to the school’s ethos, its core values and vision for the future, regardless of the school’s stage of development or future plans.
With pupils and staff returning to an environment that is much changed, it is the behaviours that may well be shown by pupils which need to be considered. We are returning to an environment where everyone’s lives have been altered. Therefore, there will inevitably be behaviours that are shown from students that would not have ever been connected with that student before. Students may well act very differently that they did before, especially in their social and emotional development having spent the best part of a year connecting socially with their peers in a way that no generation has had to for that period of time before.
Due to these changes, schools cannot underestimate the impact that the COVID impact has had on student’s mental health and wellbeing. The experiences they have been through and how their mental health may present in behaviour must be considered on an individual basis. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ as we are transitioning back in to an environment that no longer exists in the same capacity that it was before. Therefore, if schools are to measure a pupil’s behaviour in the same way that it was prior to COVID, without considering the COVID implications on that pupil’s mental health, the nation may well be preparing itself for sky-rocketing numbers of exclusions as now changed pupils are judged by the same standards that were created in a pre-COVID world.
A school’s threshold to ‘meet pupil need’ has been increasingly pushed within the UK, and on a national scale this means schools need to be re-evaluating how they are meeting pupil need; and, I argue, that this needs to be challenged, considered and increased for mainstream contexts to ensure that pupils are not excluded and sitting in a state of flux between alternative provision, which do not truly reflect their long term needs, and a mainstream context that would only consider their needs for the minimum period of time necessary, as deemed by Covid regulations.
As many education-based researchers have discussed before with regards to student behaviour; behaviour is communication. Within this it is well written of the importance to maintain consistency of behaviour management within a context, that the foundation of a behaviour policy should be inclusive to all, that it should support pupils in understanding what is and is not acceptable behaviour, to support their emotional and social development as we prepare them for the wider world. Although the majority of pupils will need this consistency once returning to on-site learning, there will be some who will struggle to transition back to regarding and displaying these set of behaviour ideals, and those within that group that actively fight against it as a sign of their needs having increased during the pandemic. Therefore, as many scholars have written, it is more important that ever that all school staff are able to understand that context around individual pupils who are showing defiant behaviours, to understand how to support this change in need and that school works with the pupil and their family to provide the support and care to keep that child within mainstream education.
My biggest piece of advice for schools within this area is for staff to be trained on how to manage defiant behaviour. What to do when a pupil says “no” to a direct instruction? Who to get support from when a pupil is showing aggressive and distressed behaviour? Where is the support for staff to discuss behaviour within their classroom? These questions must be prepared for in advance and cannot be faced at the last minute. The threshold and ability to meet needs must be considered throughout the school structure. Pastoral teams need to be prepared to work alongside and support increased numbers of behaviour issues and leadership teams, in turn, need to have a considered structure of how to manage these behaviours to ensure that exclusion is not an option that is sought as quickly as it may have been prior to COVID. These children will not fit into a long-term alternative provision, which are already at maximum capacity across the country and should only be sought in exceptional circumstances. If they are accessed too readily, we will quickly begin to see a rise across the nation of excluded pupils who fit into a category of ‘Covid impact victims’.