TEY speaks to Michelle Drake about emotional wellbeing, community, and how their youngest children have coped in a Covid world…
The staff at St Bede Primary Academy in Greater Manchester put emotional wellbeing and community spirit at the heart of their practice. Winners of the TES Awards: Early years setting of the year 2021, they impressed judges with their empathetic approach and strong links with parents and the local community.
“When children first come to us, we focus on making sure they feel secure and loved, and this extends to their families, too,” says Michelle.
“Before Covid, we were able to invite parents and carers into our setting but over the last 18 months, the children haven’t been able to see that.” “We love to make connections with families – it’s been more difficult this year, but we try our best,” Michelle tells us.
“Sometimes parents need time and reassurance as well as the children, so it’s important to keep that regular contact, even if it’s not face-to-face. Just this morning, a parent called to say thank you. She’d felt anxious about her child starting nursery, but today she described her daughter as ‘a different girl’ and said that our support has helped her own wellbeing, too.”
A clear emphasis on wellbeing runs throughout St Bede. Headteacher Sarah Rostron, recipient of the TES Awards: Headteacher of the year 2021, was acknowledged for her devotion to the wellbeing and safety of staff and pupils. In the early years team, continued attention to the prime areas of learning provides children with security and confidence.
“We spend as many weeks as needed working on the prime areas and move on only once the children feel ready,” explains Michelle. “If there’s a closure due to Covid, we start from the beginning again to build their confidence.”
“We’ve also created plenty of spaces where the children can go and sit when they need to: cosy corners, quiet areas, spaces with lamps rather than a big light. We’ve made sure we have more of these spaces available since Covid – the children need quiet time and security. If we can take anything from the pandemic, it’s about spending more time talking and thinking about wellbeing.”
The school’s empathetic approach is evident from the way Michelle speaks of her early years team: “I’ve been at the school for 19 years and it’s so important to take a step back and think, ‘How would I feel as a parent?’ and ‘How would I want my child to be treated?’ My team are so good at that nurturing and caring side – once you’ve got that, everything else will follow.”
“St Bede is a three-form entry school. It’s a big setting, but we really feel it when staff or pupils are taken out because of Covid,” says Michelle. “After a period of time recovering from Covid myself, I returned to school and one of the little ones ran up to me calling out, ‘Mrs Drake, you’re back! I’m going to give you the biggest squish of your life!’
It was such a heart-warming moment. You can’t distance in early years, but lots of children around the school now wink or blink instead of hugging each other. They’ve all been amazing during Covid and show an incredible amount of resilience.”
Loss of learning due to the pandemic has been a big topic in recent months, but Michelle’s team found some surprising results: “We weren’t expecting there to be fantastic progress due to bubble closures and lockdowns, but we’ve been blown away – the children are pretty much where they should be for the prime areas of learning, and we’re mean scorers!”
One area that has shown a little difference is communication, explains Michelle. “Some of our children have less confidence in communication since lockdown. We have a ‘red’, ‘amber’, ‘green’ system to show if they need extra support and we use a variety of methods, including visuals, to help them.
Sometimes, we’re a little emotional because the children are so supportive of each other’s progress. They clap and cheer – they’re so proud of each other! Once we’ve got that, we know we’re winning.”
“As well as support, celebrating children’s achievements is so important. We use Dojo tokens as a reward system and have a celebration assembly every Friday – the little ones spend their tokens in the Dojo shop, where there are treats for them to take home. If a child does something amazing at home, we ask parents to let us know so that their child can receive a Dojo token for that, too.”
Michelle highlights importance of actively working in partnership with parents and carers: “We’re a big school and a big part of the community. One way in which we provide support to families is through our ‘busy bags’. We started by sending home a teddy and picnic basket for the week, and developed this to create bespoke bags linked to the individual child’s interests.”
“We might send home a story sack, a creative craft bag, a construction bag, or a baking bag (filled with eggs, flour, butter and sugar – everything you’d need to bake at home). Parents have given us such positive feedback, so we know the bags can really make a difference. They support people to try different activities and enable families to bake who might not be able to afford the ingredients.”
Partnership working at St Bede helps to shape the school learning environment, too, says Michelle: “Parents send in pictures of the activities the children have done with their busy bag, and we make booklets that we can share at circle time. If a child has been baking at home, we encourage them to go to the baking area and show the other children how they did it – to boost their independence and confidence.”
“We encourage independence from the start,” explains Michelle. “We’ll often say, ‘You were so good at that, can you show the other children?’ We let the child take the lead, which helps them to feel proud. Throughout the day, we’ll ask the children: ‘Do you want to set the table for everybody?’ or ‘Would you like to hand out the bags?’ Even if they’re not yet confident with their language, they’re getting involved and building their confidence in other ways.”
As part of St Bede’s approach to supporting emotional wellbeing, the early years team hold regular mindfulness and yoga sessions. Michelle has found this to be another area where children have shown increasing independence: “As they become confident and familiar with the different movements, some children love to go to the front and lead sessions themselves!”
“There’s also plenty of time for play, because this where we find the best learning takes place,” says Michelle. “Child-led time enables us to see how the children learn, and follow their interests. Exploration, play and working independently all help the little ones to become happy and confident learners.”
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