Can penguins support our primary school students through this pandemic? - Education Matters Magazine
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Can penguins support our primary school students through this pandemic?

Changing restrictions surrounding the global pandemic have kept society in an on-going state of upheaval and uncertainty, not least in the provision of schooling. The summer holidays provided little respite for families and teachers this time around, with the promise of freedom marred by travel complexity, vaccination uncertainty for primary school children, testing issues and the proliferation of the omicron variant across our states.

While many children, families and schools have tried to keep making the best of the situation, the prolonged and universal nature of this pandemic warrants specific attention in our schools. It now marks two years since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. With children in Australia typically spending seven years in primary schooling, two years represents close to a third of their education in this sector. It is no longer enough to try to continue teaching and learning through this pandemic, we need to ensure attention is given to the skills and capacities children need for this pandemic.

So, what sorts of skills and capacities do they need? Some of these would certainly be academic-related, such as the foundational written and numerical literacy to filter and assess information. However, considerable research now attests to the impact of the situation on children and young people’s mental health and general social and emotional wellbeing (Commission for CYP, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021; Renshaw & Goodhue, 2021; UNICEF Australia, 2020).

The impact of the pandemic on routines, relationships and recreation means children and their families have been restricted from the sorts of relief that might usually help them cope with difficult times and stress. Therefore, children need specific opportunities to learn emotional literacy and to practice the associated wellbeing skills for managing change, handling frustration and coping with uncertainty.

For over a quarter of a century now, the Australian-developed Seasons for Growth suite of programs have been providing small-group emotional learning support for children through our schools. Originally developed by Professor Anne Graham, AO, to support children adapting to the change, loss and grief associated with parental separation or family bereavement, they have been adapted for children experiencing a wide range of change and loss events, including following natural disaster, terrorism events, for out-of-home care and suicide postvention in schools.

Fiona McCallum, Seasons for Growth General Manager, says while the contexts differ, at their heart these programs are about supporting participants as they cope with, and adapt to, change and loss in their lives.

Given this underlying focus, schools, and Seasons for Growth facilitators across the country and worldwide, identified the potential resonance of the programs for supporting children during the current pandemic. They began contacting McCallum at the MacKillop Institute for advice.

“We could all see there was a clear need to support children’s resilience and that the emotional literacy offered through the Seasons for Growth programs would be incredibly valuable to all children at this time. The challenge was to adapt what had always been a small group learning experience to the needs and context of a whole class,” she says.

McCallum and her team found the answer in rockhopper penguins.

“Part of what makes the Seasons for Growth programs so gentle yet powerful is the underpinning metaphor of the shifting seasons. We wanted to find a similarly helpful idea for the pandemic context,” McCallum says.

Rockhoppers are adaptable, tenacious little penguins that spend five months out at sea before coming back to land to nest. As they try to hop up the steep rocky cliffs of windswept islands, their efforts are repeatedly thwarted by large crashing waves that wash them back out to sea. With the extended school closures in states such as NSW and Victoria, along with snap lockdowns and yo-yo restrictions nationwide, McCallum and her team saw parallels with rockhoppers’ efforts to make landfall on their nesting islands.

“The penguins are both funny and resilient, but the real beauty is that they offer a shared focal point for the children that is slightly removed from their own pandemic experiences. As they examine how the rockhoppers navigate challenges and change, and as they practice their own ‘rockhopper skills’, the children are encouraged to see the connections to the pandemic without any pressure to share personal experiences,” McCallum describes.

‘The Rockhopper Toolkit: Finding your feet during times of change’ builds on the knowledge and practice wisdom accumulated over 25 years of the Seasons for Growth programs.”

It offers a fresh, fun yet safe approach to learning how to adapt to change and uncertainty during what can otherwise be a serious and anxiety-inducing time. Like all programs in the suite, the Toolkit is underpinned by research evidence about what works best in supporting children through difficult times, including the most recent advancements in resilience science.

The Rockhopper Toolkit has been designed to be easy to implement in schools, through a series of three short videos. The narrated videos bring together quirky animated illustrations (developed during lockdown by McCallum’s 15 year old daughter, Lily) with inspiring clips of real rockhoppers from the BBC documentary series, ‘Penguins in the Huddle’.

“We didn’t want to add to teachers’ stress during this time. The videos are easy to facilitate with minimal preparation or resources. Our hope is that they offer a playful, shared vocabulary for social and emotional learning and spark supportive conversations in classrooms across the country and beyond,” McCallum says.

The year 2021 coincided with the 25th anniversary of the first Seasons for Growth program. To mark this milestone, the Rockhopper Toolkit has been made freely and universally available during this pandemic.

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