Back to School after a year of the Pandemic

3 children with rucksacks going to school

On the 8th of March 2021 all schools in England returned back to the classrooms

Whilst there was a feeling of VE day type celebrations at seeing each other we also need to be aware of any mental wellbeing challenges our students will be facing on their return and be alert to the ongoing signs.

So, what can we as schools and designated mental health leads do?

  1. There is no quick fix

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge some will manage the reintegration and changes without too much difficulty, whereas others may struggle, and their signs might only show in weeks and months to come

Many of our Children may have experienced significant changes in their routines regarding sleeping, waking up, mealtimes and felt a shift in their confidence. They will need time to readjust, and we need to be considerate and mindful in the language we use during this period.

If young people do have questions or on-going worries, it is important as school staff we validate the shared experience and make sure there are opportunities to listen.

Schools need to ensure they keep up a supportive and empathic approach beyond the 2-week welcome back phase.

  1. Rebuilding friendships and self esteem

I have heard reports about many young people, in primary and secondary, that they are unsure about their friendship circles.

The school is a place for fluid friendships as it is – having 3 lockdowns has meant that some friendships have stalled, others faded and possibly even shifted.

Having secure friendships and feeling they belong to a community are an important bedrock for the mental wellbeing of all young people.

Many children might be keen to re-establish friendships but after a year of interrupted schooling, their own communications skills and confidence might be low, and they are feeling hesitant and isolated. Boosting self-esteem and giving opportunities for the young people to bond is so important right now.

  1. Parent/school communication

Communication is essential between parents/ carers and professionals working with or supporting a young person. It will be important as schools that we are aware of how the young person has coped during the pandemic particularly if they have experienced direct or indirect illness, bereavement, or domestic trauma. Having a historical timeline of their experience can be achieved through strong pastoral/parent links. Get this right as a school and we can be proactive and pre-emptive in our mental health support.

It is at this point I want to signpost the excellent Healing together programme a programme for children impacted by domestic abuse and violence where educators are trained to become facilitators so they can deliver the trauma informed approach to the children in their schools.

 

  1. Drop the ‘catch up’ mantra - this just places unnecessary stress on all.

Some young people may be anxious about having fallen behind, that they have not done as much work as their peers.  

As we ease back in school life, I feel it is important that both staff and students would benefit by not hearing the mantra we must ‘catch up missed work’. As educators we know what we need to do. Let us have time to plan carefully and we will get there.

Instead, let the school community hear more of this phrase ‘we must catch up connecting, team building and re-building our relationships.’

Regular praise, kindness, and compassion are invaluable in helping young people feel contained and supported.

 

  1. Reasonable adjustments

There will be some children (due to pre-existing mental health needs) who may require a flexible or phased reintegration back to school. It will be important to have these individual conversations and ensure Individual mental health care plans are clearly in place and these are communicated to the families.

Ensuring CPD Training for all staff so that our schools are trauma informed schools would be hugely beneficial in supporting our students.

A trauma-informed approach can help individuals and communities to recover following a crisis. Being trauma-informed means, at its most basic level, using knowledge of the ways in which traumatic experiences and traumatic stress affect people to make sure that the support they receive helps them to recover, instead of doing further harm. 

On the Innovating Minds website, they have some excellent webinars on how to become a trauma informed school, including a webinar on Using Therapeutic Strategies within an educational setting by Mary Meredith. View the webinars here.

 

  1. Embrace the five steps to mental wellbeing

Evidence suggests there are five steps we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing.

Building these 5 steps into the ethos of your school will certainly help build a culture of mental wellbeing and general positivity in your classrooms, corridors, and playgrounds.

  • connect – connect with your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
  • be active –Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life.
  • keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence.
  • give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it's a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness "mindfulness". It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.

 

Whatever decisions your school takes, as the DMHL we know the aim is to help leadership teams build a whole school approach to mental wellbeing. Using the EduPod platform we can document our progress as a school on the online platform for DMHLs ensuring there is a record of it in supporting our students and building in action plans for improvement.

Finally, in addition to its effect on mental health, coronavirus is having far-reaching effects on the social fabric. All communities have been affected by losses and significant changes and faced with this collective trauma. There is a ‘new normal’ emerging for the whole globe and while we find out what this new normal is – our priority as schools, parents and care givers is to hold the space for all our children so that they feel heard and connected thus ensuring their mental health and wellbeing is supported during these transient times.


Clare Erasmus

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