In September, if schools are fully reopened by then, the transition of children into Year 1 will be a significant challenge for schools. The challenge will be to discard the usual policies and strategies, goals and targets, and prepare for a transition that focuses on children and their needs rather than adults and their plans. And this cohort of Year 1 children will have needs unlike any we have ever confronted before.
Children’s individual experiences of COVID-19 will have affected not only their view of the world in general but how they react to being back at school. For some children the lockdown will have given them unfettered freedoms to follow their own interests, to play in their gardens, to fill their own time with their own pleasures. For others it will have been a time of extreme stress and anxiety, with little space to play, adults too wrapped up in their own issues to pay them attention, few opportunities to get outside or do anything of interest. For all children, it will have been a time of readjustment and, just as they have adjusted to being at home, they now have to readjust to being back at school, with the demands of belonging to a group after having been only with the members of their nuclear family.
Just as different children will have responded differently to the “lockdown”, there will be different children responding differently to being back at school. For some it will be a blessed relief. Children who have missed the familiarity of their school’s routines, the attention they get from their teachers, the comfort that comes from being in a safe, predicable, consistent environment. But others will have delighted in being the focus of attention at home and resent being one of a larger group, unable to have an adult’s undivided attention, and may be resistant to the noise and bustle and expectations of a busy classroom.
Whatever their experiences, and whatever their response to returning to school, all of these children need to be treated with sensitivity and understanding. This cohort will not need “getting ready for” the next steps of their learning the moment they set foot in their Year 1 classroom. What they will all need will be warm, responsive teachers – and TAs - who understand that before anything more formal can be introduced, these children need time to talk and time to play. They will need to talk and interact with others in order to start to make sense of their experiences; to describe to an attentive adult what it felt like to be ‘in lockdown’; to ask the questions maybe they felt they couldn’t ask a parent. They will need to play in order to act out situations they may have encountered and the ways they have seen people behave; to return to familiar play episodes with resources that they did not have at home or with friends from whom they have been cut off; to be relaxed and to feel in control. Schools’ first concern should be with children’s wellbeing, and encouraging talk and play are two key ways in which teachers can reassure and give security to these children – many of whom may take months or longer to recover if they are not treated with care.
It is crucial, therefore, that what these children are offered is not a formal Year 1 experience, but a good quality Reception class experience in order to make up for what they have missed in the latter part of the Reception year. Fortunately, the Prime Areas of Learning in the Reception curriculum are focused on precisely what these Year 1 children will need - Personal, Social and Emotional Development; Communication and Language and Physical Development. A focus on talk and play will strengthen these critical aspects of development and ensure that any subsequent planning starts from where these children are, and not from where schools would like them to be. This is not a time for targets and goals. It is a time for compassion and sensitivity - and pleasure and enjoyment, in being back together.
So here are just some of the thoughts I have had about how this might be done. I would welcome any further and improved suggestions so that we can all be ready for the awesome responsibility we face in September:
- Consider ways of supporting transition throughout the summer term. For example, can you as the Year 1 teacher, read a story to the Reception class children in your school via Tapestry or similar, making a connection that can be built up as the term goes on
- As far as is possible, keep children in the same class groups they were in before. They were parted abruptly from their friends, with no real understanding of what that loss would mean. They will need the reassurance of returning to class groups with which they are familiar.
- First and foremost, focus on relationships being re-established and on friendships being rebuilt and formed. This will be paramount for children in regaining a sense of equilibrium and wellbeing. As well as keeping year groups stable (as above), could your school consider sending the Reception class TA up into Year 1 so the children have someone familiar to relate to from the start of the new school year?
- Plan classrooms so children have myriad places for talk. Children will need to tell each other and trusted adults what is on their minds and they need time to do this throughout the day…whenever something comes into their thoughts. This talk should be able to occur naturally (not forced talk during ‘circle time’), in private spaces, small spaces, places like dens and book corners and snack tables. Places where everyone is relaxed and where all adults are available to be listeners, if needed.
- Prepare an environment rich in opportunities for play. Play is the natural, spontaneous way in which children will attempt to make sense of the world and take control over it again. So allow as much time for play as children need. Time to be creative, time to be with friends, time to act out concerns, time to be themselves and sing and dance and laugh in a relaxed, supportive atmosphere.
- These play opportunities should include play that is out of doors. Many children will have missed out on a lot of physical activity over the past months and might find 'sitting still' a challenge, come September. Children will have grown but, if they have been restricted indoors a lot, will not necessarily be more physically mature. The potential impact of this lack of physical activity on their vestibular and proprioceptive development will have implications for their cognitive, language and emotional development - as well as the physical.
- Give the day some structure (which is not the same as a timetable!). Offer some ‘light touch’ time together or some organised games outside…something that says ‘school’ and where children will begin to readjust to being together and not being apart. Many children will have been left to their own devices during lockdown – for a number of different reasons – and will welcome this return to an environment that is recognisable as school. Others may well resent it! But both will probably need to relearn that school is somewhere where lots of people have to be considered; where expectations are not necessarily the same as home; where teachers are supportive but have a different role to parents.
- Plan a day that reflects the best of Reception class practice…these children need to continue and complete their EYFS even though they may be technically in Year 1. This means a pedagogy based around the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning i.e. Playing and Exploring; Active Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically. It is these Characteristics that will support children to be strong, confident, competent learners.
- Good early years practice also means a day not interrupted by unnecessary compartmentalisation. If play and exploration are regularly interrupted by ‘playtimes’ or ‘assemblies’ it will remain superficial and unsatisfying. Uninterrupted time leads to deep level learning, where children are focused, concentrating and persevering with ideas or challenges they have set themselves. Uninterrupted time also offers crucial opportunities for revisiting, rehearsing and consolidating learning - so crucial at this age. In the early days of term, children may choose whether to join in the structured activities or not.
- Planning for children’s Year 1 experiences - this year - needs to acknowledge that children will have missed almost half of their Reception year. If Year 1 planning starts straight away with National Curriculum requirements then the children’s learning will have weak foundations. Children will be missing crucial skills, knowledge and understanding and there is no point in rushing to cover a curriculum that will not be rooted in steps that should have gone before. This is not a time for “catching up”, but for “building on”, and for broadening and deepening the Reception class learning that has gone before.
- Once warm, responsive relationships have been re-established and once children’s wellbeing is more assured then, of course, there needs to be planning for more regular, focused, adult-led learning. As I have said, there will be some children eager and ready to get back into the predictable rhythm of these more formal sessions. But if children cannot focus, if they have lost the art of “being a pupil”, then be sympathetic. Allow them to take the time it will take to refocus on things that adults think are important. And remember that it will probably be the children who need that more structured learning most, who will want to do it least.
By focusing on the very particular needs of this Year 1 cohort, we are, in fact, reminded of what all Year 1 children need - irrespective of whether they have just been through a challenging experience like COVID-19 or not. This may be the opportunity so many of us have championed… to bring Key Stage 1 into the EYFS, and to give these children learning experiences that are relevant and sensitive to their stage of development.
Julie Fisher is an Early Education Associate