Next steps in managing the crisis: Life, but not as we know it
Chinese New Year celebration were quickly forgotten as news of the pandemic and case data began to appear in our news. As first China, then Hong Kong, and quickly other countries in Asia began to respond to the escalation in numbers, the rest of the world watched. The responses varied, as did the advice. Crisis meetings began and were led by a range of complex factors, other than health. Economics, politics, fear and science all had a part to play in decision making across the world.
However, some common patterns and trends were beginning to show, along with some aligned practices and the majority of schools shut their doors to ensure that children stayed at home and stayed safe. For the Heads of School, Safeguarding Leads, Pastoral and Wellbeing staff, Counsellors and others, an additional concern soon emerged. How do we support the students who are vulnerable, where home is not a safe place and where access to trusted adults has suddenly been significantly reduced?
Now as we begin to return to the new norm and see our schools reopen, what should we expect and how should we approach the next few months? It is likely that schools will be keen to focus on academic and missed education, particularly for exam classes, but all advice, from Wellbeing and Mental Health Experts around the world call for an initial focus on the soft skills and social interactions in schools. We must not underestimate the importance of play, reflection, circle time, mindfulness, one to one check-ins and relationships, when building our school day around the operational challenges of reopening a school.
Dr Jenny Gibson, senior lecturer in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, states playing with friends and classmates has a very significant impact on their social development and is an important way of working through emotions. She states, “It is critical that children are given time and space to play with friends.”.
Let’s also look at the experiences for our young people through a safeguarding and child protection lens. If we look at the likely reality for some children, a school response will need to be one that fits a wide spectrum of needs and consideration.
Social distancing must not mean social isolation. Schools must work to ensure that school remains a safe space, one that they recognize, despite the necessary operational changes. One stabilizing factor which supports this will be relationships.
Positive Pastoral Care
Creating opportunities for children to reflect, process, share and to come to terms with their experience are essential during the first weeks of returning to school. By providing a safe physical and emotional environment and keeping children active and engaged, with new routines, the trickle effect will begin to gain momentum. Like releasing steam from a pressure cooker, children will find their opportunities to offload negative experiences, feelings and traumas and release the pressure of emotions.
Welcome children back to school, emphasize hope and positivity. Allow time for the sharing of experiences, both positive and negative. Talk about the shift in routines and explain the “why” in what you do. Find regular opportunities for meaningful conversations, with adults and peers. Use formal and informal time to allow space to share worries and fears. Place an emphasis on creativity, allowing time for Art, Drama and Dance. Get moving, setting short term goals to allow for frequent success.
Safeguarding and Child Protection
By providing opportunities and space for student expression within an embedded Culture of Care, you will promote the subliminal message that it is “ok not to be ok”. By using of a variety of well know counselling strategies and non-verbal tools, which encourage children to have confidence to share, you will give permission for children to release their deepest thoughts and fears. (Suggested tool)
Be ready for it
Children will have had a range of safeguarding and child protection experiences during the stay at home months. This period will not have been positive for many. Our statics show an increase in a range of concerning behaviours and experiences globally. By ready to provide support and seek professional help when children share, disclose and/or signs of trauma that do not resolve relatively quickly. Your children may have experienced loss and bereavement, suffer from separation anxiety, exposure to domestic aggression/violence, exposure to or experience of sibling aggression/abuse. We have seen household tensions rise and abuse in all forms alongside it. They may have been in lockdown with their abuser who had a significant increase in opportunity.
We are fully aware of the radical shift to online learning and have seen the most wonderful shift in attitude and creatively in learning. Unfortunately, with an increase in home learning and screen time came an escalated risk of online abuse – “the honey pot analogy” has become a reality. The release of a handbook, written and shared by the paedophile community, outlines how to gain greater access to children during lockdown. Some of these potential risks may have become a reality.
Mental Health and Wellbeing
Some children may internalize the uncertainty they are feeling during this time, which may result in anxiety, acting out, withdrawing/isolating behaviours, or depression. Revisit your training on “norm of behaviour” so that you can quickly spot changes for your children. By allowing children to discuss their feelings, share their thoughts, and participate in how their “new normal” routines are planned, you may help ease some of their worries during this ambiguous time. This planned forensic focus will ensure that you can act quickly, provide support and intervention and work with the families to support the transition from home to school, from isolation to a revised school experience. Acknowledge the increase levels of anxiety for those children who were on your radar already, however, expect to see this in other children also, who have seen their norm change beyond recognition. Opportunities to support regulation will be vital and so please introduce or practice mindfulness with your children.
“What ifs” must be addressed in order to avoid overwhelmed children. Allow children to explore the physical environment as well as play a part in the planning for the new norm.
Lastly, as adults, we must not pass our fears to children, but support each other with opportunities to chat and share with our colleagues and acknowledge our concerns from a fact basis only. By combining our efforts and being proactive in our communication, we as adults – parents, carers and school staff - will help children to transition back to school and their new “normal” school life or life, but not as we know it!