Making classrooms safe spaces in the time of coronavirus and blended learning

Last week, schools, teachers and pupils across the country took part in Anti-Bullying Week, supported by the Anti-Bullying Alliance – a coalition of organisations and individuals united against bullying. Although schools closed their doors in March and varying lockdown measures have been in place for much of the year, charity The Diana Award – created in 1997 as part of Britain’s official response to The Princess of Wales’ death – reported that 46 per cent of young people surveyed have been bullied in the last 12 months.

Some experts have warned that coronavirus restrictions may have exacerbated cyberbullying in particular, as the majority of students were reliant on digital devices and the Internet throughout the school year and therefore spent more time online. A shocking 19 per cent of young people (over 750,000) aged 10-15 reported being victims of online bullying, with name calling, swearing or insults being the most common form of cyberbullying. The survey, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, revealed the problem was experienced more frequently by children suffering from a long-term illness or a disability.

In addition to this, the NSPCC reported a 70 per cent increase in the number of counselling sessions for children since the start of the first national lockdown in England – with the charity’s trained counsellors holding 1,593 counselling sessions with children about online bullying from April to October 2020. Before lockdown measures were first introduced, there were on average 134 counselling sessions a month with children about the issue.

Unfortunately, bullying can be a pervasive problem which extends past the school gates, into the workplace and even into Parliament. November 2020 saw the publication of a report concluding that Home Secretary Priti Patel broke the code governing ministers’ behaviour, with standards chief Sir Alex Allan saying she had “not consistently met the high standards… of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect”. The entire saga felt reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn espousing the benefits of a ‘kinder, gentler politics’ back in 2015, despite his office dismissing bullying complaints and overlooking abuse (much of it anti-Semitic) targeting Momentum critics and more centrist factions of the Labour Party.

So how can teachers grapple with fostering kindness, inclusion and tolerance amidst an increasingly toxic, turbulent educational, political and social landscape? Schools are legally obliged to address bullying, but often lack the necessary resources or training to do so. It’s already a challenging task during times of ‘normality’, but even more so when a whole year group is self-isolating due to virus exposure and relying on remote learning. Here are some ways to make the classroom a safe space and  encourage the development of positive social values, which children can carry forward into adulthood.

  1. Educate our educators

CPD is an invaluable resource for teachers at all stages of their career, from the most junior trainees through to established heads or CEOs of multi-academy trusts. It’s even more crucial in a year like 2020, which has been full of uncertainty, change and loss. The brutal murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted the need to address racial and systemic issues that affect both the students and teachers of today.

A mass of reading lists and free resources circulated around the internet throughout the summer, but a particularly relevant one for teachers is the Critical Conversations online series – by Britannica Group in partnership with Urban Word NYC – which aims to equip educators with the tools they need to make meaningful change in the classroom.

  1. Encourage healthy and respectful debate

No matter what format a debate may take place in – whether it’s in person at an appropriate social distance or via an online Zoom panel – it’s vital for teachers to remind students of the need to listen to all viewpoints and be respectful of their peers’ opinions. Emphasise that cruel remarks are not welcome in the classroom (even if it is virtual), and reward children who treat their fellow students with kindness.

  1. Celebrate awareness days to involve the whole school community

Anti-Bullying Week is just one of the year-round initiatives aimed at boosting the emotional wellbeing of children and young people. Founded in 1954, 20th November is World Children’s Day, UNICEF’s annual day of action for children, by children, marking the historic adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The costs of the pandemic for children globally are catastrophic, from loneliness through to learning loss. UNICEF and partners are calling on governments to adopt a Six Point Plan to Protect our Children:

  • Ensure all children learn, including by closing the digital divide.
  • Guarantee access to health and nutrition services, and make vaccines affordable and available to every child.
  • Support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse, gender-based violence, and neglect in childhood.
  • Increase access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene and address environmental degradation and climate change.
  • Reverse the rise in child poverty and ensure an inclusive recovery for all.
  • Redouble efforts to protect and support children and their families living through conflict, disaster and displacement.

Two of the most obvious ‘symptoms’ of the coronavirus pandemic have been interconnected: social isolation for clinically vulnerable people or those living alone, alongside an outpouring of community spirit which is well-documented – from Clap For Our Carers through to the NHS volunteering scheme which saw nearly a million sign ups. This year has been challenging for many, but it has also been a reminder of the importance of community, kindness and inclusion. To mark World Children’s Day, let’s commit to these values.

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