Getting back into the swing of things

Issue: Volume 99, Number 9

Posted: 11 June 2020
Reference #: 1HA8Do

The wellbeing of children and young people remains a key focus as they return to school and settle back into school life after the Covid-19 lockdown.

As schools around the country were preparing to welcome students back in May, the senior leaders of a Year 7–13 school in Milton, Otago, were making plans to support their wellbeing needs during the transition back into school. They were expecting students and teachers to have had diverse experiences of distance learning.

However, Tokomairiro High School’s principal, Glenis Sim and deputy principal, Vicki Wish were delighted that the majority of teachers and students returned to school feeling relaxed, settled and very positive. The students seemed to have a new appreciation of their teachers and each other.

“Mental wellbeing for teachers and students was better than we expected. There are very few students that have been identified as being of real concern in terms of their mental space,” says Glenis. 

“We didn’t see the pastoral/behavioural incidents in the first week that we would normally expect to see. I was worried that there might have been a lot of online stuff going on between students during lockdown – like cyber-bullying – but in fact they have been really kind to each other on the whole. I think that’s come back into school,” says Vicki.

Since the return to school, teachers have taken time to regularly check in with students, referring them to the school counsellor when they think students may need additional support.

Good start on first day 

To start on the right foot, the first day back began with a ‘check and connect’ event for all classes which featured a game of Lockdown Bingo. Designed by Vicki, Lockdown Bingo was a light-hearted way for the students to share some of their lockdown experiences with their multi-year homeroom classes. 

This was followed by circle time and a game of Brag and Drag – where students talked about the good and bad aspects of lockdown and distance learning.

“We asked students to do a survey which asked them things like ‘did you feel supported by your teachers’, ‘tell us about things you’d found really good about online learning’, things they had found difficult and what things they would like to see included in their learning structure at school,” says Glenis.

“The range of answers was huge. There were extremes from ‘don’t change anything’ to ‘we need to change everything’. I shared the data with the staff and we broke up into groups to look at the good things, the difficult things and what they wanted to bring back to school. There was some really good discussion about what we needed to look at.”

The majority coped well

Teachers were glad to be back because there were concerns that some of their students were struggling with their work and it was hard to tell how well students were coping from a distance.

“I think some of our teachers have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work students have attempted. Online submissions of work hadn’t shown a true picture in a lot of cases,” says Vicki.

Glenis says some students struggled to do work for a variety of reasons, but many students relished working independently and in their own time.

“From the student survey we gained interesting feedback. Some absolutely loved it, they excelled doing independent work and they liked to spend a few hours on a particular subject rather than changing every hour. They’ve said they would like to carry on with that. Our task now is to see how we can incorporate those things that worked well for students into our days back at school.

“They liked the fact that they didn’t get interrupted by other students and they could zone into something and stay with it until they had finished it,” she says.

Students said they value face-to-face teacher input, Vicki says, but many of the younger students found that without classroom distractions, they got through their work much quicker and ended up with more free time.

Not easy for everyone

Some students reported that they found distance learning very difficult and some feel they may have got behind or had fewer learning experiences than they would have had at school.

“We have some students who didn’t have the opportunity to do as much as others because they had to look after younger siblings, or work on the farm or whatever... they might have felt anxious coming back to school because they weren’t at the same place as they knew other people were. As a staff we talked about it and the need to take stock and work out an individual plan for each student for the rest of the semester,” says Vicki.

Glenis agrees. “They couldn’t find exactly what they had to do. They didn’t have a teacher there to help them when they needed it. They didn’t like having to email and wait for an answer – they wanted to know straight away. They just wanted to be back with their teacher to help them. I think a number of our kids developed their appreciation for teachers during the lockdown and they are really happy being back in class.”

Changes and opportunities

The insights gained from surveying the students about their distance learning experiences will result in changes at Tokomairiro High School. These include developing more autonomous learning skills across the school, looking at independent learning plans for senior classes, more individualised goal setting and incorporating more online learning to provide differentiated programmes for students.

Glenis and Vicki were worried that NCEA students would be stressed but say that developing individual education plans (IEPs) with each student seems to have relieved any stress they might have otherwise had.

“For some of our students in their final year, who have a university focus, there may be some anxieties around NCEA. For others planning on leaving school at the end of the year there may be worries about job availability and what the economy will look like. We may need to further customise timetables and allow students to change their mind on courses as some of their goals may have changed,” explains Vicki. 

Some senior students have chosen to leave school and seek full-time employment now, and others have changed tack, realising the path they were on may not be right for them anymore.

Pastoral care

With a roll of 240, staff at Tokomairiro High School know their students’ families and backgrounds well. 

“We know some families where the dynamic at home might not be really stable, so we tried to make contact with those students over the [lockdown] time to check on them. Our guidance counsellor and dean team will be checking in with those students over the coming weeks at school to see how they’re going.

“One thing we are really aware of is that peer relationships are really important for teenagers and they have missed those for seven weeks. Some of our students will have really struggled with that because relationships are so important in a teenager’s life,” says Vicki.

Sparklers goes nationwide

After the Christchurch earthquakes, educators and mental health professionals learned that school is the best place for children to be, says Anna Mowat from Sparklers, which is a wellbeing toolkit to help Year 1– 8 tamariki learn how to handle emotions.

Sparklers(external link) was developed after the Canterbury earthquakes by the Canterbury District Health Board in collaboration with The Mental Health Foundation. 

Anna Mowat says teachers did an incredible job of holding and nurturing children when they returned to school after the earthquakes and the mosque attacks. 

“After the earthquakes, we were hearing from teachers and professionals working in schools increasing stories of kids and/or parents being worried or anxious and teachers not quite knowing how to talk about that. We are going to find the same thing after the Covid lockdown.”

Anna says they were really keen to create something to help teachers help kids and parents. However, they didn’t want to focus only on children who were displaying anxiety symptoms, because wellbeing and mental health is important for everyone.

About 7,000 teachers from all around New Zealand now subscribe to the Sparklers weekly newsletter. Teachers have embraced the comprehensive, easy-to-use resource with more than 60 wellbeing activities and suggestions. 

At the end of 2019 it was announced that Sparklers would be made available nationwide and the team began developing this at the start of the school year.

“We prepared some ideas for teachers to support the return to school after the Covid-19 lockdown, so they can just go to activities which meet their needs. They can help kids talk about how they’re feeling and learn to understand that worrying is an emotion, but it passes and we can do things to help,” says Anna.

Wellbeing resource for teachers

The Five Ways to Wellbeing, Ētahi ara e rima ki te ngākau ora, have been shown to boost wellbeing. Finding ways to incorporate these actions into the work day supports workplace wellbeing.

Workplaces that prioritise mental health generally have better staff engagement, reduced absenteeism and higher productivity, and their staff have improved wellbeing, greater morale and higher job satisfaction.

The Five Ways to Wellbeing at Work Toolkit(external link) is a stepped guide to improving mental wellness in your workplace. It includes fact sheets, tips, tools and templates to make it easy for you to support your teams to build the Five Ways into their daily lives. The toolkit can be downloaded as one document or in sections.

Resources to support wellbeing

Here are some resources that teachers and parents can use to support the wellbeing of children and young people as they return to school and integrate back into the school community.

  • The Covid-19 Wellbeing Guide is located on the Learning from Home website(external link). It aims to help teachers and parents to support students to develop coping skills, critical literacy, pro-social skills and a sense of agency, contributing to their wellbeing and resilience during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. The first two modules of the guide focus on wellbeing in uncertain times and learning from home. Module 3: preparing for and returning to school(external link) provides information and activities that teachers and parents/caregivers can use to support children and young people as they return to school and integrate back into the school community. It includes a wide range of information and activities ranging from games about physical distancing in early learning, to tasks relating to resilience and digital citizenship, to activities that encourage students to think about ways to ‘build back better’.

  • 1737: Need to talk? This is a free number that anyone can call or text anytime to talk to a trained counsellor about yourself or someone you know who is feeling out of sorts.

  • Sparklers: A wellbeing toolkit(external link) for teachers of Year 1–8 students. 

  • Te Pakiaka Tangata – Pastoral care for secondary schools:
     This resource, located on the Ministry of Education website(external link) contains information and advice for secondary schools responding to traumatic events such as a natural disaster or a pandemic.

  • Inclusive Education guides on supporting positive peer relationships(external link); managing times of change(external link); and behaviour and learning(external link) can all be found on the Inclusive Education TKI site(external link).
    These guides provide practical guidance for teachers to help recognise, plan for, and meet the learning and wellbeing needs
    of diverse learners.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:36 pm, 11 June 2020

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