Predicting the unpredictable

I like routine. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s familiar. It’s predictable. I feel in control, when I know what’s going to happen next. Exercise routine. Eating routine. Morning routine. Skincare routine. Bedtime routine.

I’d imagine that many of our learners might feel the same. Classroom routines in particular provide a structure and consistency in situations which could easily become chaotic. I think young people respond well to classroom routines. If we can train our learners to do everyday things subconsciously, it frees up working memory for the new stuff we are trying to teach them. Pupils then don’t have to think about how they enter the classroom or where they sit or how they will tidy up. It’s all done on autopilot. For many of our young people, school is their safe, predictable space. I think much of that comes from the fact that they know exactly what the expectations and boundaries are within the school building. They see the same faces day in day out and those are faces of adults who never give up on them. And they know that routines are familiar. So personally, I’m all for establishing important routines.

But I suppose my big worry, is what happens when routine changes and life throws us a curveball, or as Gavin Oattes might say ‘plot twist?!’ How do we cope with this change to routine? Where do we find the resilience and strength when things becomes unfamiliar and unknown? For me personally this has been something which I’ve spent a lot of time learning to deal with. And I think I’m very much aware of it in our learners, particularly watching my own sons grow up.

Both my boys are very different and I often wonder if that is due to their early weeks and months of life. I’m sure many mummies can relate but with baby number 1, I was regimented with routine. Naps, feeds, mealtimes, and bedtimes were all timetabled to within an inch of their life. He thrived on this routine – slept well, ate well and was fairly contented. Until, something unexpected happened. Then we knew about it!

Baby 2 was much more laid back and fitted in with our lives fairly quickly. He didn’t have as strict a routine – fed when he was hungry and naps tended to fall around when we were out in the car. He often stayed up later at night, didn’t sleep well but nonetheless found a rhythm in our family life and we just got on with it. It did bother me that life was less predictable without the Gina Ford schedules but there’s wasn’t much we could do given a very demanding 2 and a half year old big brother, whose own sense of familiarity had been well and truly disrupted due to the arrival of baby brother.

What I’m trying to say is that both cope very differently with the unexpected. Number one child, like mummy, finds change really hard. A deviation from the planned usually results in tears and anger. Number 2 child is much more chilled and adapts far more easily to anything new which crops up. Who knows if this is just in their genes or if it is a result of their very different early months as babies.

In a school context, it is interesting to consider. We all know that the weeks approaching a holiday can be difficult for some. This year, perhaps harder than any other. Is this because of the change of routine? Do our learners sometimes struggle to cope with unstructured classroom activities and increased social interactions which we often find ourselves amidst in the last couple of days of term?

This week we’ve had so many tears in our house from our biggest boy. We also had two toy boxes and a full-to-the-brim sugar bowl tipped out all over the kitchen in frustration. When digging a bit deeper it became obvious that this behaviour was communicating something else. Worries about school parties, anxiety about performing a dance at the assembly and fears about what Christmas jumper to wear on dress down day. It’s interesting to consider how all of these ‘fun’ end of term activities were causing such thoughts. If this is the mind of a fairly well-adjusted, loved, nurtured and cared for wee primary 1 who adores school, then imagine how some of the other children you teach might be feeling? Or indeed some of the adults you work with?

It has taken me months of CBT and a pandemic (thank goodness I did the CBT before lockdown!) to realise that life will not always follow a routine – we might not be able to control the situation, but we can control our response. Amidst a pandemic and in light of yesterday’s very unexpected announcement from Scot gov, more than ever I’m realising the need to choose how to respond to the unpredictable or unplanned. It can be easy to let anger, frustration and worries overwhelm. But recognising those feelings, and sharing them can help. So how do we model this for our young people? How can we as teachers, teach resilience and coping strategies? Routines are so important. But so is talking about and naming the worries and fears we might have when things don’t go to plan.

As many of us approach the last few days of term, please be mindful as I know you always are, for those struggling a bit for whatever reason. Look out for them – pupils, staff, parents – and be the familiarity and comfort they need in a very uncertain time. Recognise that their fears or worries may present in different way, but show the kindness and compassion they need.

The end is in sight. You got this!

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