Adjusting to the next ‘new normal’

I was interested to read an article on LinkedIn by Simon Barrington recently which suggested that we need to be ready for ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ as we exit lockdown. I’ve heard of a culture shock before – the uncomfortable, disorientated or even anxious or depressed feelings we might have when we are suddenly faced with an unfamiliar culture or way of life – but I’ve never considered that it can work both ways. When we re-enter the old culture again we can feel another culture shock at the differences we are encountering.

I was also interested in this article because it classed the COVID-19 pandemic as a culture shock – and it was, wasn’t it! When we were first introduced to a lockdown, it was a major shock. Our familiar routines and patterns of working were stopped in their tracks, our favourite cafes and restaurants were closed, our clubs and societies stopped meeting in person, we couldn’t even take the kids to the park and many of us couldn’t go to work! This was a major culture shock for us all. We had to learn a new language too, as our everyday vocabulary now includes new words like ‘lockdown’, ‘shielding’, ’distancing’ and ‘support bubble’. Many of us had to learn how to use online methods to keep in touch with colleagues, family and friends. On reflection, it was most definitely a culture shock.

It took a while to adjust to the ‘new normal’ as we called it, although now wearing masks in shops, standing back from other people and hand-sanitising multiple times per day feels normal in itself. It’s natural to feel a little anxious about more changes coming our way, even though these changes are bringing us back towards our old lives and ways of living. So it makes sense to assume there will be another culture shock as we follow the roadmap out of lockdown, which Simon is calling a ‘reverse culture shock’. I’ve heard friends say that they’re feeling anxious about meeting up with others and wondering how they will feel about returning to their face-to-face activities. If I’m honest I’ve quite liked turning up to work meetings in my slippers, having a constant stream of tea (and chocolate, oops!) and not having to manhandle 3 children out of the house to school everyday.

We have seen many changes in our settings too. Some of us have limited soft furnishings or removed lots of harder to clean toys and resources, many have had a one-way system in and out of buildings and different groupings of children during the day, not to mention the whole new cleaning regime that we have meticulously followed. Although we are still following these changes, the general roadmap out of lockdown has been shared, and the end looks like it might be in sight. We can look forward to a time when all our children can share the whole outside area again, and we can wander into each other’s rooms, without fear of bursting a bubble.

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that we are currently going through a period of great change, at home, at work and in our social lives. So reflecting upon how we can deal with change is important. First we have to understand that change can happen, although it can feel uncomfortable and unsettling. As Jane Cook says, “Change can be exciting, invigorating and rewarding. It is also a highly complex and often stressful process, even when it’s something we are reasonably comfortable with or looking forward to” (Cook, 2013).

Here are some key principles to reflect upon when considering change in our settings:

  • Change is a process that requires adequate time, a commitment from all involved and careful planning! 
  • Change can create havoc and feel uncomfortable. Individuals may be anxious and uncertain how to unlearn old ideas and behaviours
  • Unlearning is much more difficult than learning. We might be moving back to old ways of working, but we haven’t worked this way for a long time and it will be difficult to break our more recent habits 
  • Uncertainty and anxiety are normal and to be expected. It’s OK to feel unsure at this time. We need to reassure each other, and talk things through to support everyone through the next few months

When we experience a culture shock or a reverse culture shock – our sense of what is normal and appropriate is altered, the familiarity of what went before has been lost. We will have new routines to learn and perhaps new relationships to foster. Our expectations may also change alongside this. We mustn’t underestimate the way this might make us feel. We may feel anxious, insecure and almost like we don’t belong in this new world. I have experienced mild panic in a supermarket queue during the pandemic when the person behind me gets too close for my liking… how will I feel if the social-distancing rules are removed? What if I don’t want people to get that close to me?

I want to visit and hug my family again, I want to re-start my social life face-to-face and I want to return to church. I even want to return to the office! But I also have some reservations about things moving too quickly so I need to emerge from lockdown at my own pace and in my own way. With this in mind I have put together some top tips of how we can manage the reverse culture shock. I have considered the three elements of William Bridges’ (1991) theory on managing change which include: 

  • Ending, losing and letting go (when we need closure and an end to what has gone before) 
  • The neutral zone (when we know things are changing but they haven’t all changed yet  - we are in this stage at the moment in England)
  • The new beginning (when we can celebrate the past and be excited about the new start)

Here are my top tips when managing the reverse culture shock at home and at work:

  • We need to start with small steps and go at our own pace. Although we must follow the governmental guidelines, they are about how quickly things can progress – we can go much slower than this if we need to
  • Acknowledge feelings of all involved, be aware that some may feel anxious or worried and then do what we can to bring comfort and reassurance to them. The past year has been a very difficult time for everyone: children, families and staff
  • Explain changes and the rationale behind them and communicate effectively – people are more likely to change if the change fits with their ethos and makes sense to them
  • Understand the importance of consistency and routine for everyone. Use strategies like visual timetables to support children and staff to learn or relearn routines
  • Action planning supports action so we need to prioritise, delegate and write our own clear roadmap which outlines how our setting will respond to the changes. Then we will feel in control and prepared for any changes
  • We must discuss as a whole staff team and plan around our strengths as well as identifying areas which we want to develop. Remember that self evaluation and review can support change
  • Avoid comparing how things were with how things are now, or being overly critical of the roadmap - some parts of our lives will have changed significantly and may not return to how they were pre-COVID-19 
  • Also avoid pinning too many hopes on specific dates and events. Let’s learn from our experience last Christmas, it’s better to have fewer plans and be able to complete them than too many plans and have to change them
  • Share stories about the pandemic and our practice and lives during the various lockdowns. Celebrate the ending of this time period in some small way. At home we intend to have a family Zoom, present our children with home learning certificates and share some brownies together!

Whatever happens over the coming months, we will journey this road together. Remember - it’s easier to navigate with a road map and thinking through our route and the changes we may encounter will help us adjust to the ‘reverse culture shock’ that our destination may bring.


  • Bridges, W. (1991) Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Da Capo Lifelong Books
  • Cook, J. (2013) Leadership and Management in the Early Years, Practical Preschool Books

About the author:

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email tamsingrimmer@hotmail.co.uk

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