School refusal has been labelled a “national trend” by the Senate education committee. Primary and secondary children are not attending school and it is not because of cold symptoms or COVID. The problem of school refusal is international. The Dutch program “Knowing What Works” identifies interventions that work in helping young people who struggle with attending school. The report claims that education is essential to young people’s development and that the interaction between the service providers, such as psychologists, the student’s parent and teachers contributed positively to the student’s capacity to return to school. In Australia, school refusal is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained considerable attention following the impact of the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 shutdown periods on our school students. The Productivity Commission reported that the national primary school attendance rate was 87.8 per cent in 2022, a 4.5 per cent drop from 2021. Furthermore, the Australian Professional Teacher’s Association submission stated that “a lot more time today is spent on student wellbeing issues than even five years ago” (p143).
There is no doubt that primary school-aged children’s socialisation has been hampered by the COVID lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021. The impact of isolation on the mental health and wellbeing of students is a prime concern. During the COVID lockdowns in Australia in 2020 and 2021 many families were forced to stay home and somehow work out how to learn online. For families in lockdown routine was difficult and surviving day to day became the priority. Students struggled with the “lack of face-to-face connection with teachers … felt incredibly disconnected and isolated from peers” (p7). The impact on parents’ own mental health and coping capacity cannot be underestimated. For many children the world became “frightening” with children displaying symptoms of fear, worry and sadness.
Worldwide people turned to some form of creativity as a way to cope and to connect. View from my window attracted 3.8 million members on facebook. Time reported that TikTok became the “uncontested social media platform” for all ages with dance challenges. Teachers innovated, developing “various ideas to engage students whilst teaching them and attempting to make learning fun for them which would help assist their want to learn.”(p13).
Primary arts teachers devised some amazing learning activities that unified and inspired their students and their families. Household items became art-making materials, everyday clothes became costumes and any space in the house or garden became a self-tape studio for children to make videos to share with their peers. But for teachers monitoring student engagement online was prohibitive. They could not see immediate feedback through students’ body language and facial expressions, “you did not know if the students were actually there, listening and working” (Ziebell & Roberston, 2021, p17). Teachers as well as students missed the social interaction of learning at school.
State and Territory education authorities provided supporting materials, such as Queensland Department of Education’s fact sheets to help parents support their children returning to school, highlighting the importance of routine and planning for the day ahead. The Federal government launched the world’s first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy in October 2021. In their 2021 study, Ziebell and Robertson found that respondents in primary schools were a little more positive about the level of support for students than their secondary school respondents. In primary schools, greater emphasis was placed on student wellbeing than on maintain academic standards. But now in 2023 school refusal and student mental health and well-being is of continued concern.
Returning to school for both students and teachers has meant readjustment to face-to-face learning and to functioning within the whole school environment. Queensland independent school primary teachers in Ziebell and Roberston’s study have focussed on “rebuilding rapport with their students”(p20) but the return to school in NSW teachers were concerned that the disruption to transition points in schooling such as commencing school, completing Year 6, starting secondary school, will have ongoing negative effects on students (Fray et al., 2022). Additionally, in the first year of returning to school, limitations on extra-curricular activities such as performance and public speaking, as well as inter-year mingling for peer-support stifled students’ socialisation within the school. These were activities students looked forward to. NSW teachers noted behaviour issues such as anxiety, frustration, aggression and some reported evidence of self-harm. Teachers attributed poor social interaction among students on their return to school to the lack of face-to-face contact they had with peers during lockdown (Fray et al., 2022, p.9).
The impact of lockdowns on students’ academic achievement has received much attention, but teachers experience the day to day behaviours which are a result of lack of social contact: increases in challenging behaviour, tired and fatigued students, and students’ lower capacity to engage in learning upon return to the classroom (Fray et al, 2022, p10).
The Emerging Priorities Program funds projects that assist school communities to respond to emerging priorities in school education, including to meet the ongoing challenges of COVID-19. An examination of primary student, teacher and parent experiences of arts learning online during COVID-19 lockdown, is examining primary arts learning online. By listening to primary students, teachers’ and parents’ recollections of arts learning online, the study will identify evidence of the Personal and Social capability and develop examples of practice intended to support teachers and students returning to school.The national survey is open now for teachers, students and parents who were connected with primary schools in 2020 and 2021.
Dr Linda Lorenza is a qualitative researcher and arts practitioner whose interests are in the performing arts, arts education, and applied arts in health and rehabilitation contexts. She is Head of Course for the Bachelor of Theatre and teaches theatre, acting and drama. Lorenza is a chief investigator, with Don Carter, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.
Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, he specialises in working with teachers to investigate innovative writing pedagogies to improve student performance and outcomes across the curriculum. Carter is a chief investigator, with Linda Lorenza, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.