Carol Allen explains how to create a consistent and safe learning environment for all…
Reception is the first year of compulsory primary education in which children begin as 4-year-olds and turn 5 over the year. We must therefore keep in mind that they are developmentally very young, and fragile.
Many joining Reception classes this year will have had limited exposure to other children in playgroups, nurseries, friendship groups, playpark facilities and the like, as much of their past two years has taken place in various stages of lockdown.
They may have missed lots of early communication and social skills that are gained by such activities. Transition to school is one of the key points in a child’s life; it has always been regarded as a transition to be managed with care, however, the need to anticipate issues and provide support is now greater than ever.
Anxiety, or the normal human response to fear or stress, is a powerful overriding state which can prevent and/or alter other areas of functioning, such as sleep, eating, learning, behaviour, communication and relationships.
It is easy to identify many children who are anxious by their words and behaviour. Extracting oneself from the action; refusing to follow instructions or join in; tears and physical shaking; saying “no” even if unable to explain why; toileting accidents; issues with food – there are so many ‘flags’ we routinely watch for.
But what about those children who mask efficiently, who manage to blend in with the classroom activity, passing almost unnoticed and yet who experience mounting levels of anxiety? How can we identify and support these children so that their start to formal education is a positive, nurturing one?
Taking an inclusive approach to anxiety will mean that many children are supported merely by putting universal guidelines and activities in place.
This will be good for all as the support, understanding and skills learned will be useful to everyone at some stage in life. Working in this way allows us to de-personalise interventions and make them everyday activities. It also allows us to identify those children who have needs over and above the anxieties that are a natural reaction to some everyday life events.
Reception is such a wonderful year in a child’s educational journey. For many it is the first time that they have been away from home consistently, for regular periods of time, in a place with new adults, expectations, rules and the potentially overwhelming jamboree of a group of excited children who are all ‘settling in’.
When we talk of the Reception class, we are including the staff; the physical environment; the other children; and the activities themselves. The very first priority is to make the class, their class; and the teacher, their teacher.
Developing a sense of ownership is the first step to making the class a place of safety; a base from which to explore, experiment and learn. If we focus initial energies and activities on this transition then many anxieties will be reduced or removed without additional intervention.
Routines should be simple and evident. Modelling these regularly ensures that children know and understand what and how the class operates, thus offering security.
A good Reception classroom will have ‘safe retreat’ areas, perhaps a corner with cushions or a tent where children can self-regulate if they need a break from the intensity of the busy classroom.
Working out a pattern for the use of these areas and monitoring who uses the facility and when will provide excellent data as to who has concerns at particular points in the day; who prefers to be alone; and who needs to be supported more.
As always, parental engagement is key to understanding and reducing anxiety. Initially, any and all information should be gathered, both formally – perhaps via a questionnaire or meeting or home/school diary – and informally at drop off/pickup times.
If parents are calm and positive (and we must remember for many, especially if this is their first child, this is an extremely anxious time for them, too) it is much easier for the child to settle as any worries they have can be identified by those who know them best and once shared, a way forward can be agreed.
It’s so important with anxious children to remember that they may not present in any major form during the school day, yet once at home their anxiety might emerge in behavioural and emotional ways – for example, disturbed sleep; changed eating patterns; refusing to get ready to go to school; and perhaps being able to say that they are unhappy even if they can’t identify exactly what is concerning them.
So, establishing clear and equal communication with parents, ensuring their concerns are met and acting on information they share with you is vital. Just because there appears to be no visible issue or barrier in class doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Parents and carers are our first line of personalised information about their child.
Throughout life, transitions are moments that can be major causes of anxiety. The usual cause is a fear of the unknown; being encouraged to take part in something that you don’t understand, when you have no idea what will happen and how long it will last.
A simple move such as walking from the classroom to a hall for assembly, PE or perhaps lunch is an everyday occurrence for staff and older children, but not for those new to the way schools work. Use visual timetables effectively – these need to be active rather than passive and also portable to cover movement transitions.
When a mind is anxious, words and explanations are often lost or misunderstood. Taking time initially to walk through the journey in simple stages, explaining each step of the transition (several times, not just once) will eventually pay dividends.
Routines for transitions throughout the school day need to be taught explicitly and most of all carried out consistently so they form a solid, reliable structure to the day. For example, how children enter and exit the room at the start and end of the day; how break works; and how children are expected to sit and listen to a story or join an activity group.
In order to fully support a quietly anxious child, firstly a true connection must be made. This is why so much time and energy must be spent initially in Reception making the teacher, their teacher – a safe adult who will listen and help.
Communication may take many forms and, for many young children, anxiety itself prevents useful language, so the adult needs to validate and give a name for what is happening to help the child. “I can see you are very quiet and I think maybe all this running around is too noisy and busy for you… is that right?”
Giving names to feelings will eventually help the child to explain how they are feeling themselves. Validating their feelings is essential; any shutting down of what they are experiencing by ‘jollying along’ or reminding them that they were fabulous yesterday doing the same thing will mean a closing of communication pathways.
Getting off to a good start to school life is so very important. Creating the right learning environment in Reception class and ensuring that skills for self-regulation are part of the curriculum rather than an additional feature for a few children will support the social strength of all the children as they develop over the year.
Take the time to address this carefully and the learning will follow as the children respond to a supportive, consistent, happy environment in your class.
Carol Allen is an English specialist and education advisor for ICT and inclusion. Follow Carol on Twitter: @caroljallen