The last few months have been a time of loss and anxiety across the world. In the UK there has been a rising death toll, social distancing measures, closure of schools and almost every other non-essential amenity, working from home for many, loss of jobs and income for some, working in ‘risky’ situations for some essential workers, isolation for those who are vulnerable and probably widespread stress and anxiety in families across the country.
What we know is that there will come a day when schools re-open fully or partially, what we don’t know is when that will be. While some vulnerable students or key workers children may still be attending school, many are ‘settling’ to learning at home. This pandemic is undoubtedly a shared experience though that experience may be very different from one individual to another.
School staff will be tasked with welcoming all these children and young people, with their very different experiences back into the school community. It would seem wise to use some of the time available now to consider how we can prepare, to ensure the transition back into school is one that is not only positive but can afford some ‘healing’ to take place.
I am not thinking of counselling or specialist mental health support but rather using the human resource and connection of trusted adults to offer help with the process of recovery for students so supportive resilient communities can be built or enhanced in schools.
The needs of the various groups of vulnerable children have been anticipated and attempts have been made to meet at least some of those but many children who started this period without apparent vulnerability may have developed some as families have been under immense pressure.
They may have experienced neglect, conflict, violence or abuse for the first time, or lived with understandable anxiety that has spilled over from stressed parents without the buffer of other adults to support them.
When schools’ re-open certain principles need to be embedded to ensure a smooth transition back into learning in the setting of a school; never before have the three ‘r’s been so important.
I have heard very mixed reports about the approach of senior leaders to staff during this crisis. Some have been supportive and concerned for the well-being of staff others seem to have a task-oriented approach demanding that certain jobs are completed, requesting evidence of work done and even asking staff to encourage to the point of pressurising parents to ensure work is completed.
Staff are our greatest asset, they are also human and will have their own experience of this time, which may include bereavement, loss, financial challenges and managing their own anxiety and stress. Children and young people need calm adults to help manage their own anxiety so the clear job of any school leader is to support staff so they can do this.
The staff can then support the students, education is important but will only happen when children feel safe enough to take risks and learn. The video below explains this well:
Schools need to create cultures where everyone feels safe. Where asking for help is seen as a strength, where adults are curious about each individual child or young person and keen to deepen relationships with them. The biggest ‘buffer’ against adversity is access to an available, trusted adult and thankfully in schools, children have access to those. The culture just needs to be created (and exists in many schools already) where the job of developing and enhancing relationships with students is not seen as an add on but in this changing world the most important job of any adult in any school.
Children and young people need to be supported to reflect on their experiences and share them with trusted adults and peers to make some kind of sense of what has happened and of the impact, it may have had upon them. Adults who can regulate their own emotions and feel supported by colleagues and managers will be best placed to lead this work, acknowledging the emotions their students may have felt and the various losses that may have been experienced.
Modelling how to regulate, giving them emotional space, a sense of safety and practical help and understanding to cope with their possibly overwhelming feelings, will help them to recover so they can get back to the business of learning. But time and human resources will be needed to facilitate this.
A business as usual approach is not likely to be effective, humans cope with trauma or difficulties by acknowledging that they have happened. The world as we knew it has been interrupted, some children will have experienced loss, bereavement, loneliness, or worse. They will need an opportunity to process their feelings, far from wallowing, providing this collective acknowledgement can enable students to pause and process so they can move forward and recover.
When children are anxious or fearful, they may exhibit a wide range of behaviours, from aggression and defiance to tearfulness or being quiet and withdrawn. These behaviours stem from activation to some extent of the survival brain eliciting a fight-flight-or-freeze response (as shown in the video clip above). Children and young people will need to feel very safe and while boundaries, routine and predictability may support this they will also need compassion and understanding. This means school staff need to be on the lookout for those who are struggling, to prevent further stress from punishments for behaviours they don’t entirely have control over.
Sheila Mulvenney is the director of Attuned Education. She has recently published a book: Overcoming Barriers to Learning.
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