Leona O'Neill: We need a gradual 'recovery curriculum' for getting kids back to school

With a return to school now imminent, it's time to work out how to help our kids transition back from home learning to the classroom. Experts agree that every child will need their own 'recovery curriculum', as Leona points out...

Work will need to be done to ease our children back into post-pandemic education

MUCH has been said over the last couple of weeks about the return to school and the desire to allow our children to 'catch up' on the education lost to the pandemic.

For a year now, we have been in the grip of coronavirus. For our children in particular, this journey has been a stressful one. The notion that, no matter what is going on in the world, school is a constant, safe space has been smashed. They have been basically locked in their homes and forced to wrestle with the alien concept of home learning, not knowing when schools will re-open, when they will see their friends, or when normality will return.

The toll this has taken on their mental health is yet to be seen. But rushing them back to school and expecting everything to be 'normal' is inconceivable. Things aren't normal, things haven't been normal, things won't be normal for a long time. We need to embrace that and realise that work will need to be done to ease our children back into post-pandemic life.

I very much agree with Northern Ireland's Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O'Neill, who says we need to put in place a wellbeing curriculum for our children which will allow them to reconnect with their friends and teachers using sport, music and drama.

Professor O'Neill insists, and rightly so, that the 'catch-up' approach must be handled compassionately without blame or stigma, that every child will be different and that the way forward should be negotiated between the students themselves, parents and their teachers.

This move is also echoed by Barry Carpenter, Professor of Mental Health in Education at Oxford Brooks University and Matthew Carpenter, Principal of Baxter College in Worcestershire, writing on the 'recovery curriculum' on the Evidence for Learning website.

They say that when children return to school, this recovery curriculum needs to be in place, since any known curriculum framework has simply evaporated with the onset of the biggest health crisis the modern world has known.

They say that, for many, the goal in school is not just to learn but to "see their friends and feel a sense of self-worth that only a peer group can offer".

In their report, they argue: "You cannot underestimate the impact of the loss of that social interaction. It is as key to their holistic development as any lesson. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and the brain grows in the context meaningful human to human interaction.

"For some, the loss of freedom is constraining. What teenager wants to be with their parents 24-hours a day? Their whole self-image, self-esteem, and self-concept, is located in the interaction and dynamics of a peer group. They cannot test their emerging self against the rules and routines of family life, and to be taught by a parent who clearly knows nothing is, to them, an insult!"

They also say in the report that "the loss of routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom can trigger the emergence emotionally of anxiety, trauma and bereavement in any child and that the overall impact cannot be underestimated".

The report concludes that the foundation of the recovery curriculum is built on the following five levers.

Relationships: We can't expect our students to return joyfully, and many of the relationships that were thriving may need to be invested in and restored. We need to plan for this to happen, not assume that it will. Reach out to greet them, use the relationships we build to cushion the discomfort of returning.

Community: We must recognise that curriculum will have been based in the community for a long period of time. We need to listen to what has happened in this time, understand the needs of our community and engage them in the transitioning of learning back into school.

Transparent Curriculum: All of our students will feel like they have lost time in learning and we must show them how we are addressing these gaps, consulting and co-constructing with our students to heal this sense of loss.

Metacognition: In different environments, students will have been learning in different ways. It is vital that we make the skills for learning in a school environment explicit to our students to re-skill and rebuild their confidence as learners.

Space: To be, to rediscover self, and to find their voice on learning in this issue. It is only natural that we all work at an incredible pace to make sure this group of learners are not disadvantaged against their peers, providing opportunity and exploration alongside the intensity of our expectations.

:: To read the full report on the recovery curriculum, visit

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