Children’s well-being a focus as many return for first time
by Catherine Gaunt
Monday, September 28, 2020
As thousands of children return to their early years setting for the first time since lockdown in March, how have they responded to the crisis and how has their well-being been affected?
From speaking to nurseries, the signs so far are good, with children glad to be back and new starters settling in well.
Becky Dolamore, head of Rachel Keeling Nursery School in Bethnal Green, east London, said, ‘Children are happy to be in, exploring and playing.’
Those who were due to start in April, but couldn’t because of the Covid pandemic, have settled well, which Ms Dolamore thought may be because they are a few months older than their usual starting points.
The nursery school has staggered the start of new children and observed their health and well-being. Speaking about planning the return, Ms Dolamore said, ‘We’ve been very focused – some children have had limits to outdoor space, fewer opportunities to socialise, or their families may have experienced loss of income or family breakdown. There were concerns that some families may have been misinformed [about the pandemic], or have a lot of fear that may have a knock-on effect on children’s learning.’
One of the challenges was drop-offs because of the measures that have to be in place for families coming on-site.
Changes were shared in advance so families understood what the Covid procedures were, regarding washing their hands when they arrived and walking their child through to the garden to be greeted by their key worker.
‘We think it’s very important for very young children that their families are able to come on-site,’ Ms Dolamore said.
‘Settling-in is moving at a faster rate than normal. Families are so glad to be back in the routine. It’s a time of healing for many families, after being isolated for months.
‘We’ve been blown away by how incredible the children are coming back, their resilience. We help to develop that resilience; our ethos is a testament to that.’
Meanwhile at Brougham Street Childcare and Nursery School, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, head teacher Michael Pettavel said his team decided early on not to change the nursery, apart from the way parents dropped off and picked up children at different exits and removing a few of the ‘teddies and cushions’.
‘It’s been really interesting. When we reopened in June, children were initially quieter and aware of who they were with,’ he said, which he attributed to perhaps warnings from parents about not hugging others. ‘But in a couple of hours that all evaporated and the vast majority have gone for it and become happy and settled,’ he added. ‘I haven’t seen things that are alarming me in terms of mental health and well-being.
‘We haven’t changed how we do nursery. You can’t socially distance. We didn’t say they couldn’t hug each other. We tried to create a safe space for children emotionally. Once they’ve walked into the nursery it’s a safe place for children to play and be with their friends.’
Mr Pettavel also said children new to nursery ‘have settled particularly well. It’s a testament to the robustness of children.
‘Children under five are pretty used to doing what they’re told and accepting that, just taking that on trust. It’s calm, busy, you can hear laughter – it’s really nice.’
Mr Pettavel said he went through his own crisis in June, frustrated with Government guidance. ‘We had to interpret it in a way that was safe for staff.’
The nursery school has slightly shorter hours than usual so the staff team can clean. ‘It means I know that we are taking responsibility for managing risks,’ Mr Pettavel said.
Communicating with parents was key. The nursery, which had stayed open since the start of the pandemic, gradually opened up to more parents.
Mr Pettavel decided that if he had staff who were symptomatic, he would not take on agency staff, which he deemed a high risk, and would prioritise the children of working parents and key workers and vulnerable children. He said, ‘Parents have been so supportive; we’ve had so many amazing messages.’
Of the children, he added, ‘They’re a model to us. They never cease to amaze me in their ability to live in the moment. I came up with a motto, “Today is the tomorrow that we worried about yesterday.” It sums it all up in a way. Be mindful, fully engaged. That’s one of the reasons that young children are doing so well.’
Dr Zoi Nikiforidou is a senior lecturer in early childhood studies at Liverpool Hope University who specialises in research into how children analyse and adapt to risk. ‘Children have a sense of risk and danger and sometimes we underestimate their understanding,’ she said. ‘The research supports this.
‘We need to be open as to what is dangerous and why – cause and consequences.’
She agreed that young children seemed to be very resilient in their response to the crisis. ‘I think adults expected them to be more impacted by the current situation. I think they are a little bit surprised at how well they coped. I think we expected children to have problems. But it’s still the start – there will be more studies looking at the impact of this new reality, which is global.’
She said that sometimes the hardest part for practitioners was working with parents. ‘One of the most challenging [things] for early years practitioners is to find common ground with parents that are over-protective and over-anxious,’ she said.
She believes that the concept of ‘risk literacy’ can help practitioners to explain to children how cause and effect work in relation to risk – in simple terms, if you don’t wash your hands, you may get ill.
‘Risk literacy is the ability to deal with uncertainties in an informed way. It includes communicating, understanding, appreciating risk and developing respective skills, knowledge and attitudes,’ she said.
‘Risk literacy in education is aimed at young people and their teachers who face an increasingly complex world where old certainties get altered or replaced by others.’
The route to risk literacy is through supporting children to explore ‘reasonable’ risks in a safe environment, so enabling them to understand and confront risk, she explained.
‘Supporting young children to take risks with and for an educational goal or incentive can be regarded as a means of safeguarding them. We can’t shield them or always be there for them. We can prepare them and provide them with skills and understanding as to how to assess a situation and its riskiness.’
Asked for advice for practitioners, she said, ‘On the one hand, follow all the official guidelines and communicate with families. Pay attention to the children themselves, how they behave and react. And be there for them, like you always do, but more given the circumstances.’