Written by Charlotte Levene and Joanna Watson from the YoungMinds Training and Development Team. Follow them @YoungMindsUK
Teaching is an incredibly tough job – and now, it seems that not teaching is also very challenging! Over the last couple of months the world has changed for all of us. Schools have closed to the majority of students and those of us working in schools have been thrust into a completely different job where we are suddenly wearing a lot more hats than usual. School staff are understandably worried about many children and young people who would usually be in their care and coping with all these variables can be very unsettling.
It is a challenge to know what to prioritise for those we teach. Their worlds are very different and they will be reacting to this in numerous ways. Some might be coping okay, they may be enjoying having more time to spend at home. However, for many this is a scary time. Routines have now changed for them and they are no longer able to spend time with friends. Additionally, some children and young people will be living in environments that may be overcrowded and have little or no outside space. They may live with people who make them feel unsafe or they may be worrying about loved ones who are ill or experiencing loss for the first time.
Our recent research tells us that young people are struggling, as we would expect, especially those who already have mental health issues. Here are some of the comments from young people who took part in our survey:
“I feel lonely due to the abrupt end at a school I’ve grown up at.”
“All my plans are cancelled, which means I have nothing to look ahead to.”
“I’m constantly worried about my family becoming sick as my mum is high risk.”
“My school has been cancelled leaving me with no daily routine.”
For the whole report, see here - https://youngminds.org.uk/media/3708/coronavirus-report_march2020.pdf
Understandably, young people are spending more time on social media to communicate with their friends. They told us that maintaining friendships has been incredibly important to them throughout this time. But social media and a constant influx of news has its drawbacks too and can often feed into people’s anxieties. So what can we do to help?
As well as planning and providing all the educational support and resources for children and young people, there are plenty of things that school staff can do to make a difference to their mental health at this time. Here are some of them:
- Stay in contact as much as you can (especially with those who you think need your support most). Most schools are doing a great job of keeping in contact with students – whether this is calling or e-mailing parents/carers or communicating directly to students. Remember that this contact should be co-ordinated (so that the staff member with the strongest relationship with the family gets in touch) and recorded.
Send families our blog for parents about talking to your child about coronavirus - https://youngminds.org.uk/blog/talking-to-your-child-about-coronavirus/
- Listen and validate. If you are speaking directly to a child, it’s useful to have a short script of things you want to cover and a way of keeping a record of the conversation. The most important thing from the child’s point of view is having that connection with someone they know cares about them, so making it friendly and supportive is vital. Whatever a young person is feeling is valid and they need to be supported in being able to express this. You don’t need to provide answers, but being a non-judgemental ear is invaluable. One young person told us: “I just want someone to talk to and support me through this very difficult time. I like control and I hate uncertainty.”
- Encourage them to think about their support networks. Helping them identify who they can turn to for support and what helps already, can help a young person feel ‘held’ by others and less anxious. Being clear about what works can allow them to feel more in control and able to cope. One young person we surveyed said: “If you have friends to speak to then speak to them and let them know you are thinking of them. Even just a couple of update texts from my friend made me feel so much better.”
- Ask what support would help. These are new circumstances so be led by what the young person tells you they need. This helps them consider what support would help them and allows them to express the things they may be struggling with. It also ensures we don’t make assumptions. These suggestions of support came from the young people we surveyed:
“Strategies or tools which will help me to manage my worries and anxiety around coronavirus”
“Ideas of things to do to ensure that I’m not bored and how to remain calm and more at peace with the uncertainty of everything.”
- Have a conversation about routine and structure. It is important for children to know when they are expected to work and to have a break. As educators we need to be particularly sensitive of their differing home circumstances. It’s great if children can structure the day so that they have a break and get some fresh air. However, for some, being at home and sitting down to work between 9 and 3 is unfeasible. Understand each child’s circumstances and ensure that suggestions are mindful of this context.
- Help them access all their work simply. Young people have told us that it adds to their anxiety if their school work is not altogether in one place. Often they have to visit different platforms for different subjects or check e-mails for updates. They need to feel like they have control over what work they need to do and deadlines and expectations should be clear, accessible and up-to-date.
- Work in partnership with other key members of staff who may be contacting that family so communications are clear and linked up. This gives young people and families the confidence that they are being thought about and the support is well planned. Also, ensure that you are following your school’s safeguarding procedures at all times. If in doubt, contact your Designated Safeguarding Lead.
- Direct them to useful resources.
We have information on our website for young people and also guidance for parents
- Look after yourself – this is a very unsettling time for everyone and supporting young people may feel overwhelming, so you need to make sure that you are getting the support you need as well. Who is in your professional and personal network to turn to? What coping strategies are you finding useful and are there more that you could employ?
- Sign up to our 360 Community for free resources on how to support your students and yourself during this difficult time https://youngminds.org.uk/youngminds-professionals/360-schools/join-our-360-schools-community/
- You can also contact our training team for information on our upcoming courses on key mental health topics at firstname.lastname@example.org and look at the training pages of our website https://youngminds.org.uk/training/mental-health-training/