Back to School Diary of an Education Consultant in the UAE

The following diary entry comes from Catherine O’Farrell, as part of our ‘Back to School Diary’ series.

Supporting your students, staff and broader community on their return to school

How are you ensuring positive wellbeing across your school community on our return to learning for the 2021-2022 academic year?

There is a range of areas of concern and points to note to scaffold positive wellbeing and peace of mind. Five key areas are wellbeing, access, provision, learning needs and environment.

One of the first and possibly most obvious places to start is the regulatory advice – this will give clear and precise guidelines for health and safety along with procedures to ensure a safe physical environment. Look to your regulators’ advice to ensure that you are meeting their advice criteria and this will ensure you begin the journey with a positive note.

Next, we need to appraise students’ wellbeing

To ensure our students’ safe return to their new way of learning this academic year, whether that will be full-time attendance or a blended model, a number of steps can be taken to prepare them and maintain their wellbeing throughout this transition.

Routine, structure, and communication should be related to families early and continuously through emails, calls or messaging. Clear communication and planning from all parties reduce anxiety around the transition process.

In light of the three Cs: Confidence, Competence & Communication student and staff wellbeing should be at the fore of all planning.

We should be asking our families to share home learning experiences so that we can rebuild relationships with our students on their return to school.

Students may well be feeling a sense of loss – over the past months, they may have lost family members and friends through bereavement or those who may have left the country. We must be mindful of what our students are seeing and hearing on the news. We must be mindful that the return may surface a lot of concerns and be prepared by ensuring that the principal or point of contact is available readily.

Using the pyramid of educational excellence as our guide we can ensure a smooth transition over the first weeks.

We should be offering advice on support and wellbeing through an open house, coffee mornings and one to one conversations where needed.

Next, we should look to student access

A full review of the campus premises to ensure equity of access for all students should be completed as your campus opens in line with new health and safety measures while meeting the needs of our more complex cases. Be mindful that plans may not work in practice and be ready for change and fluidity.

Review to Appraise Provision

Speaking to teachers, inclusion teams, registrars, parents as well as students will help us to appraise who may be in need of additional support at the start of our new journey together.

We should address any concerns raised by parents, students or teachers as a team.

We should be particularly mindful of students transitioning through Phases – KG to Elementary, Elementary to Middle School, Middle School to High School as well as school leavers and ensure all transfer support and documentation is in place.

Students of Determination

It is essential to identify students who you know will find it difficult to cope with a full day. Together with parents and the inclusion team, plan a phased return to school for students with high needs, this may mean attending under staggered timing for the first week and gradually increasing attendance overtime for the first month.

Thorough risk assessments should be completed for students who need additional support or an iLSA (individuals learning support assistant – formerly shadow teacher). All iLSAs must have police clearance and medical clearance. A support / medical plan, reflective of regulatory advice, must be in place for students who need to be physically supported (touching) by their iLSA. This should be completed in collaboration with your inclusion team and parent.  This should be reflected in the iLSA MoU (Memorandum of Understanding).

Staff & Parent Wellbeing

‘Before we can help others, we need to help ourselves’

Just as we support our children’s wellbeing, we need to consider the adults. We are mindful of increased anxiety that members of the community may be experiencing when considering a return to school, be that staff, parents, or children. We have all had a period of time where we had to adapt to new routines, ways of working and losing our freedom of movement and close interaction with our family and friends. Some of us may have lost out on key memories and experiences, while others may have experienced bereavement, lived with a key worker, juggled dual roles of parenting and home-schooling, or cared for somebody shielded.

While we have all experienced lockdown our experiences during this time will have varied widely and our emotional responses will all be different. It is essential that we consider how the school can support the emotional wellbeing of all adults.

Promote Self Care in all staff

As educational staff we aim to practice what we are encouraging students to do by fostering an environment of care and connectivity where staff, parents and students feel safe and supported on their educational journey.

Connecting Colleagues

As we phase back into work life it is vital that we connect meaningfully with our colleagues. There are a huge range of webinars and forums bringing teachers, leaders and practitioners together to share practice, collaborate and reduce workload. The can act as an amazing means of support where we find peace through connecting with others who are experiencing similar situations or challenges. Talking to others in the same boat provides a sense of comfort and ease and gives us company as we navigate, often turbulent, seas. One of these forums is the Inclusion & Wellbeing Forum, hosted by myself and the lead counsellor from GEMS, Suzie Hachez. We have been hosting the free and open forum for 2 years with great success. Brining inclusion specialists, counsellors and principals together to talk all things wellbeing and discuss ways to support our staff and students. This takes place every second Monday, is open to all, not just practitioners. Information can be found on my linkedin page.

Supporting each other

Reducing distress, listening to and assisting with the current needs of colleagues and students and making sure that all are offered the support to allow them to function within their professional & learning setting.

Author: Catherine O’Farrell

Educational Consultant and Leader

Catherine O’Farrell is an experienced educational leader and consultant. She is the Director of the Knowledge Hub at iCademy Middle East, one of the founders of and hosts an international voluntary forum for Inclusion & Wellbeing leaders. She is an advocate for inclusive education and sustainable improvement of educational practice across the MENA region working under the Global Sustainability Network stiving toward the UNSDG Goal 8. Catherine is a regular media contributor and conference speaker.

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