Transitions and Lockdown

By Claire Kelly

On a recent one-day .breathe training course (one of the first of many courses MiSP has transferred to an online format), there were some really rich discussions around transitions.

The main focus was on the challenges and opportunities for the 9-14 year-old age group, including the transition between primary and secondary school; potentially facing or having completed their first formal examinations (SATs, 11+, school entrance exams); undergoing physical/hormonal changes as well as a shift in terms of how society views them; undergoing significant social changes, e.g. peer groups becoming more important and influential, in-group/out-group dynamics coming to the fore, more engagement with social media and online networking.

However, there was also recognition that young people, their families, those who work with them and, indeed, society as a whole, has been through perhaps the most significant transition in a generation in the form of the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s hard to believe how swiftly and extensively life has changed for so many of us.”

It’s hard to believe how swiftly and extensively life has changed for so many of us. Who would have thought back in February that in just weeks, the world would witness a mass transition in terms of lifestyle, routine, movement, even diet as a result of limited availability of foods we had previously taken for granted?

We transitioned swiftly through necessity rather than choice. We changed our roles at work and at home. Medical staff retrained to support the treatment of Covid cases; parents became home schoolers; teachers learned to teach through online platforms or in classrooms with vulnerable students and those of keyworkers, trying to ensure they all maintained social distancing throughout the day; families found themselves living together 24/7 and all the challenges that came with that.

Some resolved to make the most of the time we had been given in lockdown as an opportunity to learn a new language/instrument/become an accomplished cook/painter etc., etc. If we are anything, the human race are great adaptors.

We need to recognise that there are further, more long-term transitions coming.”

And as we feel, perhaps over-optimistically, that we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel, with hints at a lifting of restrictions, we need to recognise that there are further, more long-term transitions coming our way.

While some may be excited at the prospect of getting ‘back to normal’ (whatever that might mean post-lockdown) never has it been more important to stop and really take stock of what this might entail.

There is a danger that, in our rush to ‘get back in the saddle’, we might assume things will simply carry on as they did before. Yet, such an approach would be both a missed opportunity and, indeed, folly.

There is an urgent need to thoughtfully plan for ‘re-entry’ into a post-lockdown world brings with it. This will include:

The fall-out from complete reductions in social contact and movement.
For many, our lives have become simpler and slower. Our bodies have adapted to restricted movement and less sensory stimulation through remaining at home. Many teachers and young people we have spoken to over the past few weeks have expressed anxiety about re-entering the busy, time-pressured, crowded working week of school, and fear an ‘in at the deep end’ approach to ‘re-entry.

Some have experienced trauma through working with, or witnessing, loss on a personal or much broader scale. Many of us have noticed the smaller, but still noticeably profound, effects on our emotional and physical wellbeing of media reports mapping out catastrophic scenarios. Some have chosen wisely to practise ‘protective awareness’, consciously choosing to limit how much news they access. Some have been locked down in a home in which abuse or violence have been a daily reality, with no ‘escape hatch’ or ‘pressure valve’ that work or school might usually provide.

No resolutions or ‘full stops’.
With the news that schools would close and examinations be cancelled came a sense of collective bereavement for some – not just for those they had lost, or were worried about losing, to the virus, but also the loss of endings or full stops in their lives. Many young people were left floating in a void of uncertainty, unable to say goodbye to the friends and school staff as they transitioned from primary to secondary school, or between school and university or the world of work. Many felt the rug being pulled out from under their feet as the examinations they had been working towards for month or even years were cancelled. No conclusions. Only questions remained.

Perhaps one of the most profound themes of this period of lockdown has been the collective sense of uncertainty. While restrictions on movement may be lifted, this uncertainty will continue. Jobs and income have been lost, economic decline is almost inevitable, and while parents and carers may do all in their power to protect their children from the anxiety that comes with this, it is almost inevitable that the young will pick up on this and, indeed, have their own fears about their futures (a key area of concern for many young people, even before this time of pandemic).

We would be wise to pause and really attend to how we might best support ourselves and others.”

So, as we slowly begin to emerge from lockdown, perhaps congratulating ourselves for getting through it, we would be wise to pause and really attend to how we might best support ourselves and others in the periods of transition to come.

With this in mind, a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement caught my eye.

In this article, a primary school teacher in The Netherlands explains how her school will make mental health a priority when it reopens post-lockdown. This includes allowing both staff and students time to adjust. Instead of diving straight back into the weekly timetable, they will be encouraged to discuss their values, and how they want to be moving forward.

They will also really take time to listen and talk, recognising that the children and staff will have experiences or concerns about the future they may want to share, and perhaps haven’t had the chance to discuss at home.

With wellbeing and mental health in schools no longer seen as a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’, never has it been so important to provide wellbeing strategies for both staff and students. In the immediate post-lockdown period, it is this that will provide the scaffolding upon which everything else rests. No sustainable, nor indeed humane, approach can expect young people and those who work with and care for them to thrive or even survive on a diet of ‘more of the same’. Something needs to shift.

As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, it feels crucial that we use this pause to reflect on what really matters in education.”

Covid-19 has brought with it terrible loss. At the same time, it feels like we’ve been given the chance to do a great big ‘.b’ (or ‘Paws b‘) – both key practices in the MiSP courses of the same name. This involves simply stopping, noticing how and where we are in this moment, feeling our feet on the ground, and giving ourselves time to just ‘be’. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, it feels crucial that we use this pause to reflect on what really matters in education.

I refer often to the following quote from Jon Kabat Zinn, but never has it felt more poignant:

We do not know what specific knowledge our children are going to need ten or twenty or even five years from now because the world and their work, when they come to it, will be so different from ours.

What we do know is that they will need to know how to pay attention, how to focus and concentrate, how to listen, how to learn, and how to be in wise relationship with themselves – including their thoughts and emotions – and with others.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness in Education, 2013.

Here’s to transitions and a bright and brave new beginning!