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How to help kids in 2021

It's the question on most of our lips. Just how do we help our children cope with lockdown and everything that brings? We talked to headteachers at two top Glos and Worcs schools to find out their advice.

We’re starting to understand that Covid and lockdown may have some long-standing developmental and mental effects on children. Schools see it at the coalface end and are often first to deal with it.

Whether you’re juggling primary or secondary school stages, read on for help from the education experts.

Helena Grant is Prep School Head at Wycliffe College in Stonehouse, Glos.

· The first thing I’d recommend is to be responsive – ask yourself what worked well in the last lockdown and what didn’t. It may be you need to change your approach this time so be alert to that.

· Children and parents have less resilience this time – it’s winter, it’s dark and cold – very different to Spring lockdown with long evenings and warmer weather. Be aware that this will be a challenge and accept it could be harder but things will improve as the weeks go on and the seasons change.

· Gather feedback via tutors and individual teachers. We pull this together in whole staff meetings weekly, plus Heads of House meetings where pupils of most concern are raised and strategies discussed. Staying in contact with teachers makes sure you can stay a step ahead of any problems that arise.

· Notice changes of behaviour, changes in attainment levels or engagement. Particular signs for the prep age group are lethargy and not wanting to turn video on to engage in a lesson. Your response can be to be more flexible on home learning expectations and time frames, more tutor time one to one, or putting them in touch with friends.

· Be alert to common problems: such as, too much screen time leading to headaches, fidgety-ness, lack of enough fresh air and physical exercise, loneliness from friends at school, lack of external stimulation.

· Whatever communication usually happens, try to triple it! There is no such thing as too much communication, it’s so important to help them still feel connected during this isolating time. We make a huge amount of time available for tutor time (smaller groups) and for pupils to be able to chat together freely.

· Ring the changes – online learning is monotonous so it’s about how can days be different. For example on Friday, Prep totally breaks down the timetable to celebrate ‘Celebrate your life Day’ – lots of off screen activities but still providing a structure and check in points throughout the day.

She adds: “Do not expect it to be smooth sailing and don’t panic if there is a bad day. Do what is best for your child and even expect a change in behaviour and mood swings, this is ok.

“Some solutions that could really work are: make a clear distinction between school time and home time – at Prep we are doing this through wearing uniform for school to create that divide.

Get fresh air – every break time and lunchtime, outside, after school get more intense exercise whether indoors or outdoors – get those endorphins going!

Make sure they eat well – it’s tempting to eat more ‘snacky’ things at home – don’t fall for it. Sugar highs and lows do not help.

Think about how they can meet with friends online – they can play chess, draughts, battleships, even connect 4! Even though online, they will be relaxed and chatting. Reach out to parent groups and see if socials can be arranged within year groups.

“And lastly, be kind! – to yourself and to others. There may be things that are going differently from normal, but let go and do what is right for now.”

Kate Corbin is Deputy Head Pastoral of Wycliffe Senior School in Stonehouse, Glos

Don’t underestimate the ability of many young people to cope! When they are given the tools to do so by the adults around them they often surprise you. After the first period of remote learning we found that lots of pupils were just glad to be back to the routine, their friends and even their lessons. Lots of the concerns that parents and staff had about them returning did not manifest themselves and what we saw was the incredible adaptability young people have and a sense of appreciation for all that they had missed out on.

“Giving young people time and space to express their fears and concerns, as well as pose questions to adults they trust often results in reducing anxiety and creates a sense of safety.

“All year groups in the senior school had a lesson at the start of the year to talk about their lockdown experience and concerns on COVID. We will repeat this when the pupils come back to us again as it provided the opportunity to understand that even people in our relatively small community had had vastly differing experiences and that they were not alone in feeling angry, disappointed, sad about the things they had missed out on.

“Being able to maintain social contacts and if possible meet up socially is really important for teenagers, as they increasingly rely on their peers for their feedback and information. Providing regular opportunities to catch up with friends, either online via a multi-use app or in an outdoor setting has been central to our provision over the last 12 months.

“When we are away from school we use Teams to deliver lessons but we have also set up ‘Virtual houses’ with daily ‘tea and toast’ and drop in sessions alongside weekly quizzes, cooking demos, virtual escape rooms and even online battleships! Teenagers can sometimes be reluctant to reach out virtually and get involved so having a focus such as a game, quiz or activity can be really helpful.

“For those pupils who are finding the going tough, it is really important that they know that it is OK not to be OK. Mental health and well being needs to be freely discussed and de-stigmatised by adults to enable young people to come forward when they are struggling. At such time, relationships that have been built us over time really come into their own. The time you invest as an adult in talking openly about life having ups and downs to your son, daughter or pupil will help to balance out the increasingly common idea fuelled in part by social media that life should always be ‘great’.

“For those pupils who have been preparing for GCSEs and A-levels during this period, the constant media attention and rumours have been both confusing and de-motivating. Sticking to what we actually know and what we can actually control have been key messages we have pushed out. At times the uncertainty and speculation have been overwhelming, however supporting young people to keep their focus on goals whether it is a university offer, apprenticeship or a gap year has certainly proved helpful in controlling the impact of the uncontrollable forces that will have an impact on them.”

Chris Hattam is Headteacher of The Elms School in Malvern, Worcestershire.

He says: “One of the key issues we’ve found is that when children return after an extended period of time away they have missed key developmental (social) time with each other. The children (especially at prep school level) will keep hitting developmental stages. Normally this would happen with their friends and they would roll with each other’s changes, support each other (without really knowing it!). After the last lock down we saw more social issues in 3 months than in 3 years as children re-ordered themselves, discovered how their friends had changed and indeed how they had changed.

“We have coped with this by recognising it, giving the children supported space, communicating with parents of children who were struggling and working with children as individuals, but it is something we are continuing to address.

“This time around we are working very hard as a senior leadership group to centralise all communication so parents are not flooded and offering help to them, be it with education or managing their children. Communication is key at the moment.

Boundaries and recognising that children will always push them is important to remember. It is so difficult to manage the dynamic between a parent and a child who might not be wanting to learn. Children will always test boundaries with parents more than they will with teachers – so don’t worry if this is happening to you.

“We are being proactive and pre-empting the children’s return by setting big fun events for later in the year but also getting the children to complete tasks and challenges that will promote healthy post lockdown discussion such as a photo journal (a photo each day) with no writing so that children have to explain and discuss why they took the photos.

“We have also changed term dates and shortened Easter Holidays (although there is no expectation children have to attend the extension periods) to give children more time in school, and also to support parents who might be needing the time to get to grips with their own business or enjoy some respite.

“We are ensuring Arts, SEN and G&T programs do not lose pace or impetus, so there is still lots on virtually to engage creative brains such as Theatre Appreciation club and Year 7 writing their own “Lockdown Recipe Book” to sell for Charity.

“We are very aware that parents are missing so much at the moment, so to redress that balance when children get back in we are live streaming sport, concerts, nativities and so on, to help everyone feel part of school life again.

“By and large we have had the most wonderful response from parents and our children are not as far behind academically as we might have feared. Most importantly I believe that our children feel happy, secure and supported.”

To attend the Virtual Open Morning of The Elms School on Saturday 27th February 2021 at 10am, which includes a Q&A with Headmaster Chris Hattam, register your interest at registrar@elmsschool.co.uk or call (01684) 540344.

To take a virtual tour of Wycliffe College contact Senior School Admissions Manager Fiona Lawson on fiona.lawson-best@wycliffe.co.uk or call 01453 820412.

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