“Play and socialization are the ‘work’ of early childhood,” Dr. Wojciechowski says.
“During this period, children are learning how to navigate social scenarios,
such as when and how to join in with others, taking turns, conversation skills,
emotion regulation, frustration tolerance, emotional expression and more.
These lessons seem simple, but they are foundational to healthy social development."
- Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski
This is the third year our learners have experienced the pandemic interrupting what we used to think of as 'normal living':
- Spring 2020 - all school-age children moved to virtual learning for the last 3.5 months of the school year, playgrounds were closed and everyone was required to work and learn from home
- Fall 2020 - in-person learning resumed with children very tightly cohorted into single classroom groups for the entire school day - for the entire 202-21 school year, students could see each other from a distance but they were not allowed to intermingle under any circumstances - not on the playground, the playing fields, the gym, or in music; there were occasional interruptions to in-person learning - twice the entire province was moved to virtual learning for brief periods of up to 4 weeks; other interruptions occurred because students were exposed to positive cases in their cohorted classrooms
- Fall 2021 - in-person learning resumes amidst a very significant 'fourth wave' of infections; we continue to wear masks and distance, students continue to be cohorted although not quite as tightly - they are able to mix and mingle outside and are cohorted in team classroom pairs
Everyone is talking about academic gaps and how will we catch them up?
From an educator's perspective, this is something we know how to address, supporting students in their learning from where they currently are to where they need to be. There are no magic strategies for filling in gaps, it's more a matter of ensuring they have the supported, direct teaching needed to continue growing in their learning. We can do this with additional support, allowing for greater time on task, offering short bursts of targeted instruction exactly when and where they need it.
The concerns I have are far more focused on the socialization cracks and gaps that have begun to surface in our children's play, sense of fair play, capacities for solving interpersonal problems and resolving conflicts that begin small but have the capacity to quickly escalate if not resolved. These are the side effects of pandemic cohorting and tight management that have become the most prevalent and obvious as this third year of COVID-19 impact has unfolded.
Recently, we surveyed our grade 4 students - those who have experienced school as an 'expected experience' for the longest period of time across our school's population. We were surprised to find a significant number of these children no longer feel they 'belong' to a school community but rather they just attend school. This caught us off-guard a bit - we have worked hard through the entire history (6 years) that our school has been open to foster a sense of community through many different avenues - primarily using peace education as our sign post. Through our monthly peace assemblies, our Peace Ambassadors Leadership Program, several different community-based peaceful initiatives, our Coulee School initiatives, Wonder Time experiences and other whole-school initiatives, creating a sense of belonging to a community of caring learners has been a priority for us. To see this virtually disappear from our students' experiences of school was an abrupt call for change.
We know this third year of pandemic influences has changed the ways we foster community in the building - we tend to do this with a far greater focus on shared virtual experiences now, and with a focus on the small classes or shared classes together rather than as a whole school community. Even when we engage in a whole school activity - such as our field trip to Glenbow Ranch Park on September 20/21 - we participated while still tightly cohorted in our class groupings. We have loosened our recess and lunch break restrictions somewhat so there are grade groups together; there are, however, no times when children can just be themselves anywhere inside or outside the school without cohorting restrictions.
This level of control has a protective capacity for holding potential COVID-19 contact in abeyance - it also, unfortunately, does not allow for children to interact as freely or as often as one might expect or wish to have happen. And, consequently, our children are not practicing the interactive skills and strategies with each other in novel situations that they typically would in a regular school year kind of setting.
This is not a permanent loss of knowing how to make friends, resolve small conflicts or be comfortable in a different social situation. It does, however, require some attention and support to nudge our students back into their more expected norms of behaviour when relating with each other - how to respect each other's space, listen before speaking, offer suggestions rather than ultimatums, be kind first, notice and suggest sharing, negotiate rules and expectations of play rather than announce them, etc.
Navigating childhood social situations has never been an easy task - children are in their formative stages with scant background experiences to fall back on when things don't go exactly according to their internal plans. We know, however, that equipping them with some easy, go-to strategies for sustaining positive play can make a huge difference in the way the flow of their learning days go - they no longer need to worry about what will happen at recess, who they will play with, will they get chosen to play on a team.
Teaching in what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic is a complex task on the best of days. We are focusing some of our energy into fostering positive play experiences with our students despite the pandemic restrictions - we believe strongly our students just need some gentle nudging back to their previous experiences and mindsets to re-capture the safe, family feeling our school grounds once experienced most of the time. We are beginning with noticing our own feelings, our own expectations and our own responses to situations. As we work through identifying our inappropriate and appropriate responses, we are confident our children will regain their sense of safety and belonging within our school setting. As Dr. Wojciechowski noted at the beginning of this post, emotional regulation, frustration tolerance and conversation skills are all about healthy social development. While our wings have been clipped somewhat (so to speak) as a result of the pandemic, they have not been removed and we are confident our children will soon be demonstrating more appropriate behaviours and attitudes as they learn to play safely, communicate positively and feel safe in our school community - feeling all the components of belonging.
We are working on a Safe Play Project that is multi-faceted and we are confident will re-build, foster and re-kindle our memories and strategies of building peaceful communities together despite a pandemic that has worked to drive us apart from each other. We can do this together!
Principal, Eric Harvie School