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02 Jul 2020

Promoting wellbeing in a time of crisis

Sarah Griffiths, Caterham School
Promoting wellbeing in a time of crisis

After 10 weeks within the four walls of home, June saw the return of some primary school aged children in England, with wider returns due in Wales later in the month. In three short months educators here and around the world have adapted massively to protect our children when in school and continued to educate them in the confines of their homes in lockdown. On top of this schools have performed a crucial function in keeping communities connected, advising parents, maintaining routines, providing safe havens for key worker children and providing calm, clear voices to parents and pupils in need.

With the UK lockdown beginning to lift, the challenge for schools shifts again. Educators are seeking answers to the questions: ‘how do we allow pupils back on site whilst protecting their safety and that of our staff’ and ‘how do we educate children equitably when some are in school and some are not’? In one of many recent documents from the UK’s Department of Education, schools are advised that ‘the different experiences all pupils will have had at home will naturally play a large part in how easily they re-adapt to attending school and its routines. Staff will need to strike an appropriate balance between reintegrating pupils into a reassuring and familiar work ethic to support their mental wellbeing on the one hand, and identifying and taking time to address explicitly individual concerns or problems on the other.’

We are reminded by the DfE that when returning to school the emphasis is about routine and socialisation, protection and affirmation. In other words, the wellbeing of children and young people. There are some key cornerstones and themes to providing a secure return to school for pupils and staff whose lives have been turned upside and whose normal is still a journey away.

Preparation is key

It’s important to acknowledge that the return to school will not necessarily be a smooth mental adaptation but a jolt back into socialising and being physically near others. The changes to the physical environment may be stark and uncomfortable and new rules alienating and stressful. To this end at Caterham we have:

  • Sought to lower emotional intensity through our communications and interactions with pupils, staff and parents. Listening and two-way communication is more crucial than ever.
     
  • Given families a visual walk through with (homemade) videos they can watch together. These have been hosted by key members of staff to allow our young people to see both the familiar and altered environment before crossing the threshold
     
  • Flexed our uniform guidelines so that easily washable clothes are worn
     
  • Demonstrated clearly how drop-off and collection will work along with any one-way systems
     
  • Described clearly how arrangements will work e.g. hubs to remove as much uncertainty as possible
     
  • Provided additional form tutor and wellbeing lesson time to explore feelings about returning to school, to ask questions and voice concerns

Bridge the gap

The big wide world can be a daunting place when you’ve been within the same four walls for months, surrounded by your closest family: normal service cannot be simply expected to resume immediately. Anxiety about infection or simply from being separated from their nuclear family may bring powerful emotions in our young people. We’re considering:

  • Encouraging transition objects to come into school if they provide comfort
     
  • Providing opportunities where necessary for pupils to contact home
     
  • Making a reflection space available for withdrawing from larger groups or processing experiences
     
  • Setting aside ‘down time’ and longer gaps between lessons
     
  • A shortened day for some

  • Providing wellbeing clinics with key staff available throughout the day to pupils

Adapting and providing space

Like many countries, many of our day-to-day arrangements for return to school are guided by the government and will involve protecting the safety of our community through enhanced safety measures including temperature checks, staggering social and transition times and enhanced cleaning. Specifically to provide respite and succour will we be:

  • Setting aside some space as a ‘Quiet space’
     
  • Providing ‘drop-ins’ with staff and pupils who are mandated to listen
     
  • Reducing academic demands to acknowledge increased stress levels

Coping with trauma and bereavement

As with every aspect of this pandemic, the experiences of individuals will vary widely yet bereavement will be an experience of many, confounded by a lack of opportunity to say goodbye. Schools are specially placed to provide a space for our children and young people to grieve and process, quietly or more publicly sharing their losses. Along with maintaining strong and empathic connections across with the community we will be:

  • Providing opportunities to remember those who have died through a memory wall or similar space
     
  • Continuing to develop emotional literacy and self-awareness through our Wellbeing curriculum and in daily interactions
     
  • Encouraging awareness of the feelings that are present now and have been felt in recent months
     
  • Increased access to talking therapies
     
  • Training staff in supporting bereaved pupils and families, and providing support for staff

Supporting vulnerable pupils 

Like many schools, pupils with particular vulnerabilities are recognised and have been supported throughout lockdown. For these pupils, and some additional ones, returning the school may be especially hard for a huge range of reasons including having special educational needs, mental health concerns, those returning to a boarding environment and thus leaving home and much more. Positive support and adaptations will mean a great deal to these pupils, including:

  • Being invited into school ahead of the main group to more slowly adapt to the changed school environment
     
  • Being offered shorter days or weeks
     
  • Being allocated a ‘go to’ member of staff whom they can find throughout the school day and who can liaise with parents

Educators have long known what is now backed up by research that ‘..a focus on wellbeing and mental health not only enables [schools] to provide healthy and happy school environments for pupils and staff and prepare the citizens of tomorrow with sound character and values, but also directly supports their more immediate mission: the promotion of effective learning.’. At these times a focus on wellbeing is not merely desirable but essential if we are to guide our pupils into the future with their selves intact. As schools, our special, central place in the communities we serve affords us great power to support and heal in the short term and long into the future.

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