We know that children’s social-emotional wellbeing and learning trajectories have been hit hard during the pandemic. And it’s not hard to see why.
Monash Education's Dr Sarika Kewalramani outlines six strategies to help students thrive in learning environments post lockdown.
Depending on where you are in the world, your students may have spent the better half of the past two years learning from home. For young children, that could mean they have never experienced a busy and noisy classroom environment before now. Trying to cope with this cognitive overload — while also experiencing feelings of loneliness and anxiety about being away from home for the first time — can lead to school refusal.
So what strategies can teachers put in place to enable thriving learning environments in the post-COVID phase of schooling?
1. Create structure and routine
A structured learning environment means a secure learning environment. It helps children know what is coming up next and they learn to regulate their expectations of the day accordingly. Teachers can do this by setting up a visual board where, every morning, the structure of the day is displayed in the classroom.
This can greatly help a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder for example, to understand the routine of the day. And when the child comes back the next day and finds that the routine has changed (i.e. they have a physical education lesson or art on that day), they are better able to cope with the change, thus avoiding meltdowns. It is critical that teachers take the time to go over the structure and visualised plan (images or drawings that can be constructed by children themselves) at the start of every day. Developing these consistent routines (such as a morning routine, a work routine, and a play routine) will make the day run smoothly for everyone.
TIP: Provide pre-warnings when you are about to transition between activities and routines, by pointing to the visuals and letting them know what's about to happen.
2. Motivate children by providing choices for set activities
Children need to ‘learn by doing’ in a post-pandemic schooling environment. When they are given choices, it can give them a sense of autonomy, especially for those ‘opposite defiant’ learners. I suggest using multimodal modes (such as tangible, non-screen or screen-based) for children to complete tasks and replacing activities with something else if it is not developmentally appropriate. Having a ‘goodie-bank’ of such alternative activities can really help with this.
TIP: Incorporating movement breaks, such as role plays, dancing or going on environmental walks can be a great strategy for refocusing. It helps children to process sensory information, refreshes their brains and allows them to get some fresh air.
3. Play games!
Games are part of a ‘hidden’ curriculum. They help to develop children’s social interaction, literacy and numeracy, and problem-solving skills in multimodal ways. Game time allows children to participate in important cognitive tasks such as sharing information, establishing rules, communicating in a respectful manner, and supporting organisation.
During a literacy lesson, ask children to form groups and develop a new game. They must write or draw the rules for the game and take turns to share their ideas to develop the game rule book. The motivation is then when the game rules are compiled in a shared respectful manner, children get to read out the rules of the game with the class, then play the game.
TIP: By getting a student to keep a tally of scores of each game, you can combine numeracy with literacy outcomes!
4. Create a character story board
A core part of a child’s social development is their ability to recognise and label emotions, as well as how to respond to the feelings of other people around them. Creating a character story board of ‘helpful thoughts’ versus ‘unhelpful thoughts’ can be a great way for children to put names to their feelings and learn how to work through them. Start by collating children’s ideas of different types of thoughts. Then get them to distinguish between them by making a Venn diagram of which thoughts they might consider helpful and which are not helpful.
TIP: Ask your students to discuss with the class the reasons why a thought might not be helpful and how they could frame their thoughts more positively next time.
5. Have a toolbox of sensory items
Sometimes there are unique stressors in one situation (such as loud noises or a change in routine) that make it difficult for a child to apply skills that they are easily able to use in a different scenario. Just like how we adults have different glasses for different eyesight issues, different children need different sensory tools.
Creating a toolbox of all different kinds of sensory items is so helpful for when a child is experiencing a meltdown. Some things to include in your toolbox could be a stress ball, colouring books and colour pencils, quick puzzles, a Lego set or blocks, cut and paste activities, a bead necklace making activity, an iPad with sensory apps, or codable robotic toys.
TIP: It is common for children with ADHD to have short attention spans and need some extra hands-on activities to stay focused or refocus. Ensuring they know they can access the toolbox whenever necessary could help to mitigate a meltdown before it occurs.
6. Develop a ‘friend-o-meter’ and an ‘emotion-o-meter’ game routine in class
Often it can be hard for teachers to identify who in their class is being bullied or left out from social activities. It can also be difficult for children who have mainly seen their peers over video during lockdown to form friendships in real life.
One strategy is to get children to write down the names of friends they might like to play with or work with during group tasks. Ask them to then rate themselves (a great metacognitive activity) as to how well they played with that friend, what went well and what could have done better to promote their friendship.
Similarly, get children to rate their emotions at an ‘emotion-o-meter’ scale of 1 to 10 for how happy they felt playing with that friend. And ask them how they can make that friend feel happy too. Where appropriate, ask them to role play or demonstrate which behaviours are best for developing a friendship. Discuss what choices they made and ask them why they made those choices.
Through this strategy, children will learn that they are initially likely to have the most success making friends with other people who have similar interests to them, who display a friendly face, voice and body clues towards them, and who like to talk and hang out in a similar way to them (i.e. one-on-one versus in a group, sitting and talking versus playing games).
TIP: Reward and praise the children’s efforts by giving them extra free play time (such as one activity less than usual or getting to play a game on the computer or iPad).
Slowly getting back to a ‘normal’ learning environment will take time. But these strategies can help teachers to understand their students’ social-emotional states and create an inclusive and thriving learning environment where students feel safe, comfortable and are able to thrive.
Sarika runs a professional development program titled Integrating STEM-based Play in Early Childhood Education.
- Story spotting: listening for stories in your organisation – an outline of a story spine technique to facilitate storytelling for the purpose of learning and engaging (Meaning Business)
- Can robots support development? - an example of using robots to support children’s social and emotional development: A five-step framework (The Spoke, Early Childhood Australia's blog)
- Why preschool is the best time to spark an interest in STEM (Monash TeachSpace)
- How to build a more inclusive STEM program in early childhood using robotics and conductive blocks (Monash TeachSpace)
- Can Robots support social-emotional development? (STEMEd Magazine)
- Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O’Shea, S. (2020). The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature Review prepared by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Australia.
- COVID-19 school closures: How long can they last, and what comes next? (newatlas.com)
- COVID-19: 10 Recommendations to plan distance learning solutions (UNSECO 2020)
About the author
Dr Sarika Kewalramani, PhD, is an Early Childhood/Primary STEM Lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne. Sarika's research expertise resides in conceptualising kindergarten and primary teachers' understanding of the nexus between creative STEM-based play by integrating technologies such as robotics as inclusive teaching practices and curricula programs in ways that promote students learning and development. Through her research, Sarika provides exemplars of evidence-based practices to meaningfully integrate technologies (e.g. Robotics/Artificially Intelligent toys) in developmentally appropriate ways to progress for example vulnerable children’s persistence on tasks, problem solving and resilience building skills.
Exploring parental engagement in young children's safe use of technologies for edutainment and STEM learning experiences is Sarika’s other area of expertise. Sarika’s recent research investigates how children with additional diverse needs (e.g. EAL, language delays, ADHD) can be supported with social-emotional development using inclusive STEM and robotics-play practices.
Sarika also designs customised professional learning courses to help early childhood educators implement STEM-based play in their programs.