Navigating a’ Thinking – Feeling School’  through a pandemic 

Forres coined the phrase some time ago of being a Thinking – Feeling School. It began when we embarked on the Thinking School’s journey back in 1999 and attended a conference which showcased many cognitive programmes that would teach learners how to think critically an essential 21st Century skill.

One of the speakers highlighted that in addition to developing  ‘thinking’ we also needed to develop the ‘feeling’ side of our children. She emphasised that it was vital to actively teach and develop empathy, kindness and compassion along with cognition and academics. This balance was imperative in order to prepare our learners to enter the world one day with both a career and the desire to be of service to humanity and contribute to making the world a better place.

This aptly expressed in the quote by Aristotle – ‘Education the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’ 

A Thinking School during a pandemic

We have always tasked ourselves at Forres with the quest of endeavouring to come to an understanding of how to equip our learners today for the future tomorrow.  A future that is, for the most part, a great unknown.  It is also commonly known that whilst the world is changing at an alarmingly fast rate,  schools are not!

The following quote is a good summary of  this dilemma.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”     DAVID WARNER

The day lockdown started, that future seemed to arrive in an instant.

As we faced this looming lockdown we knew we needed to find a way to hold and support the Forres Preparatory School community by creating and then delivering an effective online platform that was as close a replication as possible of our bricks & mortar school and that would include all our  ‘Thinking Schools’ cognition programmes and strategies.

Overnight staff had to do a big ‘re-think’ and further develop skills and strategies that belonged to that distant future.

Executive Functioning and the brain.

One aspect of preparing our learners for a future unknown has been to teach them about their brain and how it learns. To teach them how to think and learn independently and critically. One aspect of brain function that helps us do this is called Executive Functioning.

In a nutshell, Executive Functioning is that part of the brain that assists learners to manage the massive volume of incoming information through all the senses, in a sequential, logical way, enabling them to execute tasks and instructions within a given time frame. It helps us sort through what information is important right now and what is not. It also helps us decide what information is true right now and what is not. A very useful tool in a world of fake new and fake information.

Executive Functioning is made up of 3 key elements

Selective attention: Tuning out information that is not important and selectively focussing in on what is important in that current moment to complete the task. For example, ignoring your friend trying to distract you with a joke from across the classroom.

Working memory:  That part of memory which is not long term memory – (my birthday last year) or short term memory (what I had for breakfast this morning) and which temporarily holds and manipulates relevant information long enough to complete the demands of the current task. Research shows that about 7 seconds is the general capacity of working memory. Learners use this type of memory for 90% of their school day.  A simple instruction like: “fetch your book from the shelf across the classroom” can result in a learner reaching the shelf and having forgotten what they came to do there. That is a working memory for you!  I am sure we have all experienced this many times.

Self- Regulation:  Being able to regulate feelings and behaviour so a learner can stay on task by ignoring other demanding information coming in.  For example, I have to study now so I won’t watch TV, but when I am finished, I will watch my favourite programme later.

Of course, the area of Executive Functioning is vast with many aspects involved.  Yet the 2 areas  we found to be a good fit  for our Virtual Classroom was:

  • Teaching learners to become future thinkers
  • Teaching learners how to ‘backward plan’.

We were able to construct our information and lessons in such a way that learners could be trained over time to become as independent learners as possible as opposed to being dependent and prompt driven.

This is a simplified explanation of the process:

You start at the end with the task DONE!

  • The learner puts on their imaginary future glasses and imagines what the task looks like DONE! (If you start with GET READY! the learner will always be prompt dependent.)
  •  It is preferable to give them a visual of the DONE! Task. The reason for this is that research shows Executive Functioning starts in non-verbal working memory. Having a visual picture of the end product helps learners develop visual imaging (mental-movie making skills) that are needed to plan all the steps they need to take to complete the task.


Now the learner can work backwards from the finished product and pre-rehearsed in their heads (make a mental movie) of what it takes to do the task and break it down into DOable steps. These steps appear in the DO! box.

Whilst they visualise this mental movie in their heads they imagine  themselves doing the following:  (this is called Situational Intelligence.)

  • People – I can see the role I will be playing and who else I will need to help me.
  • Space -  I can see myself in the space and moving around the space executing the task.
  • Objects – I can see myself working with the equipment and resources needed.
  • Time – I can experience the sense of the ‘sweep of time’  it will take to complete the task thus I can plan when I must start and how much time I need to finish.
  • Feelings – I can feel if this right and will work well for me.

In essence, the learner plans backwards to execute forwards.

The beauty of this is that the learner can do a pre-run of the task without fear of failure in real-time. If it doesn’t feel right the learner can make changes and run another mental movie. If this mind mime ‘feels’ right the learner can make the appropriate preparations and then execute in real-time.

It is so interesting that research shows that 90% of the time, task planning happens in a different space from where you execute the plan.

A perfect example of how we as adults do this all the time is when you are sitting at work at the end of the day thinking about your drive home and what you need to do before you get home. You make your mental movie of the route you will drive to get home. On this route, you visualise the shop you need to stop by to purchase milk and then the child you need to collect from their school. During the course of your mental-movie making, you realise the time of day it will be and the traffic jam you will experience on the route you have chosen. Immediately you feel the anxiety or frustration of being stuck in that traffic,  You now make your changes and run another mental move taking a different route. There is no traffic on this route, it feels good, it works better. You settle on this plan of action. Without realising it you have preplanned in your mind your trip home and now you can execute it.


GET READY! then tells them what equipment or books etc you need to get started.

Following this format, the staff at Forres then adapted each and every lesson. This is how it looked on our Forres Virtual Classroom. It was also made it very easy for parents to follow and help their children execute each lesson.

The broader design of the virtual classroom was to break the curriculum down into manageable, small, chunks of information and skills that are practised and built, one on top of the other, daily. This repetition of routines and exercises and tasks along with the  “backward planning approach linked in beautifully with what we teach our learners about their brain and how it loves to learn. It also builds on the Forres view of intelligence i.e  Growth Mindset. This view gives learners agency over the development and plasticity of their brain.  Intelligence is not fixed and the more they practice and put in the effort the more their brain grows. “ I am the driver of My Brain”

The Forres Virtual Classroom continued to support the school through all the changes we had to morph through from half the school back on alternate days to back in full force in the 4th term. In addition, it continued to support all our children who had to continue to stay at home fulltime-online. To date, it remains the backbone of our learning programme and should we have to lockdown again in the future we will be able to move back online with ease.

The Feeling School during a pandemic

As a team we were also aware, and more so as time went by, that we would need to find ways to maintain connection and emotional support for all in our school community.  One obvious way was continuous communication via letters of what was happening or going to happen. Tips and information on how to navigate the virtual classroom. If we received feedback from parents that they were struggling we would arrange zoom meetings to advise them or the whole class.

Above all, Narrative Practice,  the umbrella philosophy that guides all the practices at our school and stands front and centre of our ethos was invaluable In supporting our community as we went through all the ups and downs of COVID-19.

Narrative Practice means that we adopt a position that children live their lives according to the stories they tell about themselves and the world. As Forres staff, we, therefore, stand accountable, believing that we hold the responsibility to develop narratives that are supportive and help children build a positive vision for thier lives and give them hope.

During these past months, we found ourselves digging deep in response to the unexpected challenges brought by Covid and the lockdown. As a Narrative school, we continued to be mindful of our custodianship of the whole-school story and how supporting every person in the school community was key to navigating through these times. Webinars and conferences were offered to both staff and parents to help them respond to everything the pandemic was throwing at us, uncertainty, change, loss and grief.

Our Narrative response to Covid brought our community closer, made our sense of purpose clearer, and heightened our gratitude for all those in our community who have helped to bring our vibrant little school through this very challenging time.

It also gave us the tools to tell our own story of the pandemic in response to the very loud and frightening stories out there in the world.

Our story told of a school that responded with resilience, innovative thinking and enormous compassion. A school that found endless ways to outwit and outsmart Covid 2019.


Our heartfelt thanks and gratitude goes to :

A stirling staff who never hesitated once to give of their best and go the extra 100 miles for their pupils. (This includes the full spectrum of our staff complement – security staff,  ground staff, teacher assistants, teachers, admin staff and leadership).

A loving and supportive parent body who, whilst enduring their own personal struggles with COVID-19, never stopped supporting the school thus ensuring its sustainability.

The Cape Narrative Trust (Linda van Duuren & Therese Hume) who continued to support parents and staff through webinars and counselling, providing us with a way to think and talk about our struggles, fears and our grief in a way that supports and grows hope.  Website link:

ISASA who worked day and night to present to the Department Of Education the unique needs of Independent Schools and provide us with vital information when we felt so in the dark. Website link:

ChildCloud that gave us a world-class platform to build our learning programme on seemingly overnight Website link:

Executive Functioning -  Sarah Ward