Returning to school dance after a break
Many children around the world will be returning to school, many after time in isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students will be experience anxiety and may not adjust to this change in the same way as others.
As educators, we need to delicately manage this transition back to school to support our students becoming effective learners. For dance educators this priority is equally as important as it was after the return to school from being in isolation for the first time. In this article the strategies to support this recovery are discussed from the perspective of dance, but could be applied to general arts practice in Primary schools.
Supporting children as they return to school
The global pandemic has brought with it feelings of surviving an event filled with fear and a feeling of being unsafe. The unpredictability of the situation will have made many children feel threatened. For some this could result in feelings of nervousness and they may be reluctant to return to school.
For younger children they could experience difficulties in articulating these feelings and present as frustration, aggression, quiet withdrawal, lethargy or a drop in concentration in class. These challenges in the classroom may only appear to a minimal level but, unless addressed, could affect students’ future development and ability to engage with learning.
Many children may not have been engaged in rich and diverse learning in their home environment. They could have had difficulties accessing learning materials or been in environments not conducive to learning during isolation. The holidays may also have been unsettled with changing conditions as a result of the pandemic.
Some children will have had difficulty establishing a routine that is so important for many children, particularly those with complex and additional needs.
Teachers need to think about each of the children’s individual priorities. The gaps in students’ knowledge is less important than addressing their concerns. The emotional and social well being of the students and how the school is resolving this needs to be the focus.
The Recovery Curriculum
Barry Carpenter and Mathew Carpenter, in their Think Piece entitled A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, identify the need to plan for a structured and intentional road map to support students return to school learning environments. They outline a range of strategies to assist schools in developing curriculum adjustments necessary to put in place a holistic and compassionate recovery process (Carpenter and Carpenter, 2020).
They identify five losses that students may be experiencing: routine, structure, friendship, opportunities and freedom. These loses may result in students feeling anxious, traumatized or enacting a range of stress responses.
Evidence from research carried out after the Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand revealed that there was a significant impact of this traumatic event on children under 5 years old (Liberty, 2018). Speech delays, emotional immaturity and other learning and development issues were a result of this significant traumatic event (Liberty, 2018).
The 5 Levers to Recovery
Carpenter and Carpenter (2020), developed 5 Levers to Recovery that provide the framework for the curriculum to be adapted to the students lived experience. This evidence-based approach gives schools the ability to be agile when adapting to individual unfolding situations in their schools.
Establishing the trust and relationship between students and teachers can not be taken for granted. This should be planned for, not assumed.
The basis for education is in the community and the needs and experiences of this difficult time should be listened to.
The wants and needs of the students will shape how the curriculum is co constructed between teachers and students. How the learning is being adapted needs to be made transparent to the students.
Students have been learning in a range of different environments and they need to learn how to establish themselves again within the school environment.
Students require space and time to discover things for themselves and find their own voice. Unrealistic expectations need to be avoided.
How will this impact the dance classroom?
The dance classroom can provide a safe space for children to explore their feelings and emotions in response to the changing learning environment.
For some students, school may look quite different with changes to how children interact to keep themselves safe.
Physical arts learning may need to be structured in different ways to address health concerns, particularly for students with special needs. However, the reestablishment of routine in the children’s lives is an important part of the recovery process.
Having a clear dance class structure and revisiting movement that the children already know and remember will help to make children feel comfortable in the classroom. These structured activities need to be flexible enough to respond to the unfolding needs of the students. Embedding frequent ‘checking in’ activities will help to gauge how the students are reacting and identify any discomfort.
Some children, due to space limitations at home or lock down rules that restrict outdoor movement, may not have been as active as usual and the teacher needs to be aware of lack of muscle tone or stamina in the early days of this back to school transition. Gradually increasing the activity level across several weeks will give students the opportunity to warm up to dance class without discouraging participation.
Connecting school with home
Students and parents need to know they can lean on the school community to support families in what may still be a difficult time. Families may already be dealing with health issues, family bereavement, unemployment or transitioning to a permanent working from home situation.
Some children will be protesting the return to school for various reasons and this can create considerable conflict in the home.
The free book series, The Stories of Lenny and Lily, has a book that deals with conflicting ideas in a family about returning to school. Lenny and Lily Return to School, is an appropriate stimulus for a dance activity for a range of age groups and can also be read by the family at home online.
Personalizing responses to students
It is important for teachers to observe what their students have learned about themselves as learners during this crisis. Devising a self-devised dance profile activity that discloses children’s feelings and their personal experiences during isolation can be healing.
It opens the door to designing dance activities that respond to children’s needs rather than just delivering curriculum. The inclusion of a ‘Worry Jar’ in these kinds of activities, where students can raise their concerns, anonymously, also gives further insight.
This style of dance activity demonstrates to the students that they do have a voice and that the teacher is interested and willing to respond to their ideas and beliefs.
Nurturing relationships between teacher, students and peers
The design of your dance activities can provide opportunities for the students to get to know each other again after a prolonged absence at home. Structuring dance activities that move from pairs to small groups to whole class explorations and dance making allow time for the students to communicate with each other in a collaborative environment.
Allow students to work in friendship groups in the early weeks of the transition back to school. Gradually broadening their contact with others that they may not know as well, will give them time to gain confidence in their social interactions.
You might find that these dance activities are even more noisy than usual! But it is productive noise and can act to grow the trust between students and teachers as well as between peers. This in turn develops a sense of unity in the classroom that makes children feel supported and nurtured.
Meaningful engagement and self-discovery take time in the Primary classroom. Allowing time for this to occur will impact on your students future learning pathway and reconnect them with their curiosity about learning.
The value of students finding their sense of self is that it drives their intrinsic motivation. Unrealistic expectations around knowledge and dance skill development in this fragile phase may lead to students disengaging from school and from learning.
Dance activities that co construct the events of children’s lived experience during isolation take time to explore, create and process. What did you see, what did you do, how did you feel? All these emotional questions need time to reflect on before children can create dance that is significant to them personally.
What is important in dance making is the essence of sharing, not a back to business as usual approach.
The transition back to school can be a time of recovery for students, teachers and communities with a holistic and nurturing approach. The Arts provides a chance for students to express their ideas and emotions that may arise in these challenging times. Making and experiencing dance in the Primary classroom is a way of children telling their narratives and reflecting on what their new stories will be in the future.
Carpenter, B and Carpenter, M (2020). A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, https://www.evidenceforlearning.net/recoverycurriculum/ (accessed 22/09/20)
Liberty, K., (2018) How research is helping our children after the earthquakes. https://www.healthprecinct.org.nz/stories/how-research-is-helping-our-children-after-the-earthquakes/ (accessed 22/09/20)