Choose kindness over curriculum for our children
When the news broke of Sydney going into a two-week lockdown over the school holidays, my immediate reaction was panic. As a parent of a child with disability, I knew the impact this was going to have on my children, limiting their activity over the school holidays was going to be challenging for me. Then my mind turned to school, and as an educator, I thought about the possibility of students and teachers returning to remote learning, and I couldn’t believe that we were facing this predicament again.
However, it was not my emotional state I was concerned about, but instead my student’s and my children. As an educator, I am acutely aware of the impact lockdown has on the mental health and wellbeing of children. As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus, our children and us, have not experienced a global pandemic of this proportion, and therefore we don’t know the psychological impact of lockdown on our children, in particular our most vulnerable children, those with disability.
In March 2021, Kids Helpline gathered evidence on the recent lockdown in Victoria and now there is clear evidence outlining the devasting psychological impact lockdown had on children in Victoria, particularly in the 13 – 18 year group. The data highlighted an increase in calls to Kids Helpline, increase in emergency response to children at risk of harm including self-harm, suicide ideation, suicide attempts and family violence. This data validated my concerns for children in Sydney and the significant psychological impact the restrictions would have on all children in NSW.
Last year, when remote learning was first announced, I, like many parents and teachers, jumped in with gusto. Visual schedules were created, creative, modified, learning activities were completed and online yoga and movement breaks were part of our daily activities. We logged into Zoom for online learning and on those days I was working from home, I met with students and staff from the same platform.
After a few weeks of learning online, the novelty wore off and our loungeroom felt more like a battlefield when I was trying to engage my son in his learning activities. I was trying to “work” from home, with a sensory seeking six year old and a one year old, who also required daily physiotherapy. I became so exhausted from juggling multiple therapies for both children, remote learning, working from home, and trying to stay calm and in control throughout a global pandemic, that I soon reached out to the school and asked for support with my son.
I wasn’t just burnt out as a mother, but also an educator. Teachers were expected to change their pedagogy and adapt to a new way of educating students almost overnight. I was supporting my team of teachers, acutely aware they were adapting to their new roles and the impact this had on their own wellbeing, with most of them also managing online learning whilst caring for their own families. Educators were learning how to use various technological platforms and we were increasingly worried about the health and wellbeing of our students and their families. Teachers were thrilled and relieved when students could return to their classrooms and have a sense of normality in this extraordinary time. Seeing my own son return to the arms of his teachers, and the happiness on his face, is something that will stay embedded in my mind for the rest of my life.
On Wednesday, when remote learning was announced for the return to school in term 3, my heart sank. I knew the impact this would have on my son, my family, my students and every other student and their families in Greater Sydney. Teachers are once again thrust into the world of remote learning, something we never thought or hoped that we would have to experience again.
As educators, we have experienced remote learning and know what works for our students, so we will plan accordingly. And this is similar for us as parents and caregivers. We know what works for our children and what doesn’t work, and we understand that the main priority is our children’s health and wellbeing. This time around, I will have a more relaxed approach to remote learning and will continually monitor my son’s, and my, mental wellbeing. In order for remote learning to be successful, I’m going to follow these principles:
Keep it simple
While children will be provided with learning activities to complete from the school, I will keep these as simple as possible. We’ll do our morning check-in with the teacher and then have a fruit break, and work together to plan what activities he would like to complete that day. We will take regular breaks for movement, play and preferred activities, with wellbeing prioritised over learning.
As a teacher, flexibility is my best friend. I need to bend, twist, turn and pivot every day in order to support my students. Throughout remote learning, I’ll do the same for my son. If we don’t get through all the work, that is okay. I will adapt to his needs and won’t have the expectation that we get through all the tasks each day. Now is not the time for perfection or to increase academic engagement and performance. Now is the time to provide a continuity of learning, whatever that may look like.
Maslow vs Blooms
In education, we have the saying “You need to look after the Maslow before you can do the Blooms”. This saying is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which outlines the theory that educators need to ensure that a child’s physiological and safety needs are met before they can be expected to engage in cognitive learning, including Bloom’s Taxonomy. Educators must ensure that the students have access to their basic needs including food, water, oxygen, temperature regulation, sleep and exercise. Children must also have their safety needs met, including being safe from physical and psychological situations and events. And many educators and parents would agree that the events of a global pandemic would have a significant impact on the psychological, and at times physical safety of children. As a result, children are not in the cognitive space to engage in higher-order thinking skills, including creating, evaluating, analysing, applying, understanding and remembering, which encompasses Bloom’s Taxonomy’s. Expecting them to engage in these skills can therefore be met with frustration, anxiety and refusal, as they may be overwhelmed by what is happening in their world.
Play is learning
Children learn through play. If your child, particularly your child with a disability, is provided with worksheets or learning activities that don’t spark their interest, let them engage in play. Many of the best learning experiences are gained through play, so I encourage parents to let their children play. It provides opportunities for emotional regulation, social interaction, communication, motor development and sensory stimulation. It also provides the brain opportunities to grow and strengthen, which will enable children to return to online learning after they have engaged in play.
Reading is reading
Many parents are provided with texts from the schools during remote learning, which may not be of interest to their children. I always encourage parents to provide opportunities for their children to read any type of text. Whether they are reading a book on a topic of interest, the back of a football card, the ingredients to make a cake or instructions on how to build Lego, reading is reading and it builds literacy skills. My favourite literacy experiences have come from unplanned, unstructured learning experiences, where my children, or students, have engaged in a text and shared their experience with me. Last lockdown, this was when I introduced “Literacy Karaoke”, where I put on my children’s favourite songs, with the lyrics, and they read the lyrics from the screen, developing their reading and fluency skills.
Be kind to yourself
Once again, we are parents of children with disability who have been asked to keep our children home and engage in remote learning. I found this experience so overwhelming last year, and feel equally as overwhelmed and panicked about starting remote learning this week. I keep telling myself that it’ll be okay, I can get through it, just take it day by day, keep it simple and this time, I have a completely different mindset and expectation of what I will achieve. I’m choosing to be kinder to myself and my children, and prioritising our mental health and wellbeing over chalk and talk. I will try my best but I will not let remote learning impact the psychological safety of my children and family.
Reach out for support
Being told to stay home and not see family and friends is such an isolating experience, but you are not alone. I encourage parents to connect with family and friends and share your thoughts and feelings with trusted adults. A problem shared is a problem halved. There are many parent support groups including MyTime, which connects parents with other parents raising a child with disability. Parents of children with disability are also able to have one family member or support worker in the home to assist with caring responsibilities. This is an opportunity to get support in the home during remote learning and/or providing much needed respite to parents and carers. Should you require assistance with remote learning, connect with your child’s teacher or school principal. Discuss your families circumstances, and there may be provisions where your child can attend school for one or more days. As mentioned by the Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, NSW Public Schools remain open at this time and even though remote learning is encouraged, no child will be turned away, particularly our most vulnerable children.
Every child will return to school this term impacted by the COVID 19 restrictions and/or movement to learning online, and we, as parents, can minimise the impact on their mental health and wellbeing by creating calm, safe environments at home and reducing the expectation for perfection at this time. Our children, particularly those with a disability, look to us for support, love and guidance and by being kind to ourselves and to them, we can offer and encourage them to engage in learning opportunities, while being mindful that they are learning in challenging times under very extraordinary circumstances, and are doing their absolute best.
Where to find support
- Reframing Disability – www.reframingdisability.com.au
- Disability Gateway – www.disabilitygateway.gov.au
- Carer Gateway – www.carergateway.gov.au
- NSW Department of Education – https://education.nsw.gov.au