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Tatler talks to teachers and counsellors to find out how Hong Kong parents and teachers can help students adjust once schools can operate for a full day again

Schools, students and their parents have had to adapt to a new normal for over a year—a new normal that started with schools having to conduct all the classes online in the beginning of the pandemic until they were eventually able to operate in-person classes for half a day. And while the Education Bureau (EDB) has announced that schools will have to continue with half-day, face-to-face classes for the 2021-2022 school year, it will also allow schools to operate for a full day once over 70% of its staff and students have been fully vaccinated.

With the new developments taking us all one step closer to schools operating normally again, teachers and counselling staff from international schools share how they, and parents, can help children ease back into attending school in-person full-time.

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Routine is key

Children, in general, like routine and having spent over a year following a new way of learning, it will be important for parents and teachers to help them ease into the new routine to lessen the stress.

“The nature of the pandemic has added an ever-present element of uncertainty to everyday life. Routine is key and this is where parents can help the most. Routines are by nature predictable and therefore can reduce potential stressors,” says Rachel Friedmann, principal at Carmel School.

“Students feel safe and secure when they have a constant and predictable schedule. Thus, the teachers may also re-teach the new timetable and make frequent references to it throughout the day,” says Shelly Chutke and Tina Nakova, counsellors at the Lower School at Canadian International School (CDNIS). “Further, they may consider how to make routines more engaging, interesting, and fun. All students will benefit from the stability, predictability, and safety that may be provided through loving interactions and supportive environments.”

And while getting into a more structured routine at the start of the school year can be reassuring for children, Kim Cunningham, head of English Primary Department at German Swiss International School (GSIS), says it can also be exhausting, something that the school will take into account. “Our teachers understand this and make sure those first few days are filled with activities that allow the students to interact with each other while learning their new class routines. As with the past 18 months, part of those routines involves hygiene safety and what we are doing to keep each other safe. We build in frequent breaks so that the students have time to expend energy, play with each other and have a brain break.”

Relieving anxiety

Starting a new school year is always a little nerve-racking for students and Covid had added an extra layer of anxiety to it since schools have had to factor in social distancing and mask-wearing measures into their operations, as well as additional time for handwashing.

“The unknown can be scary for younger and older students. Parents can help them feel more comfortable about their new grade or new school by talking through what they might expect. So talk to them about how they would get to school, what they need to do once they are at school, what safety measures they would be following, what their schedule would look like, their new teacher(s), etc,” says Jaime Wilde, a school psychologist at CDNIS, and her colleague Timothy Woo, the wellbeing counsellor. “Allow them to ask any questions they may have about going back to school. The more familiar they can be with what to expect, the more comfortable and less anxious they will feel about coming to school.”

Friedmann from Carmel School emphasizes the importance of providing validation for any worries that children may have. “It’s normal to feel excited and anxious at the same time and this is another transition that parents, teachers and students need to adapt to,” says Friedmann. “Validating this process normalises these challenges and difficulties and indicates to the child that both individually and collectively, the individual and the family unit will get through this.”

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Reinforcing soft skills

As students have been attending school through a combination of online and in-person classes over the past year, they’ve had fewer social interactions than they otherwise would have in a normal school year. Ken Stevenson, the head of English Secondary at GSIS, notes that teachers will also have to pay more attention to certain skills that were neglected over the past year because of the circumstances.

“Many of the ‘soft’ skills that we take for granted will need to be explicitly taught. Things like self-management, self-regulation, organization and so on—that students develop as a matter of course through normal school routines in lower secondary— will need to be emphasized,” says Stevenson. “Teachers will have to spend time explaining expectations, supporting individuals and encouraging the development of these important skills for learning. It will be important to incorporate a variety of activities into learning routines in order to develop in-person collaborative and discursive skills.”

Wilde and Woo from CDNIS say that the start of a school year provides an ideal opportunity for teachers to start a dialogue with their students by asking about their summer, as a way to know them better.

“It is important to give value to these opportunities and acknowledge the students’ desire to be known personally as a way to help them develop those social skills, helping them understand what a healthy relationship can look like, while also developing and teaching empathy in the process,” says Wilde and Woo. “Given the lost face-to-face time that they have already endured, maximizing this full-time in-person experience will help reinforce those ideas of advocating for themselves when they need support, reminding them that teachers are safe people who they can approach when in need, all of which will build on the intrinsic motivation to do well in life.”

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Don’t overschedule

A full day of school can be tiring at the best of times and with students having gotten used to online learning over the past year, one of the biggest challenges will be getting them to adjust back to attending school the traditional way.

“Concentrating for extended periods of time may prove challenging. Online learning had a different pace and was inevitably more passive than the usual face-to-face environment,” says Stevenson from GSIS. “When children get home from school, allow them some downtime and do not over-subscribe to organised activities or tuition. The most important thing is to come to school well-rested and enthusiastic.”

Stevenson also suggests that parents participate in games such as sudoku and crossword puzzles with their children at home to help them develop their levels of concentration, in addition to board games that encourage collaboration between the players.

“The full school day may feel quite long and students may feel tired and/or a little overwhelmed to be back in the classroom for a large part of the day,” says Friedmann from Carmel School. “The initial start to school will be ensuring that all students adapt to their environment. Something we continuously monitor is students’ participation in class and group activities, with it posing marked differences when compared to online or asynchronous contributing. We are also trying to encourage more physical activity where possible, both to get fitness levels back up as well as keeping students' energy levels high.”

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