Dr Helen Care shares some practical tips for applying this advice and managing the psychological needs of the whole school community as they return to school.
We are currently going through unprecedented times of change, and we are all trying to work out how to adjust to the ‘new normal’, and to find ways of managing the gradual transition away from total countrywide lockdown.
Many people find that their feelings of anxiety increase when they experience uncertainty. As advice and local policies relating to the coronavirus pandemic and easing of lockdown continue to evolve, the lack of certainty makes things even trickier. This is often true for teachers, as well as parents and children facing a return to school.
Some aspects of returning to school will be welcomed and will feel wonderful. However, some teachers, young people and families are dreading the return. Life in lockdown became ‘normal’, however hard it may have felt, and it will take time and support to adjust as we move forwards.
Manage anxiety and provide support for all staff
Seek support from local councils, unions, advisors and government sources to help you collectively make decisions and support each other through the process. It is important to validate everyone’s experiences and potentially different assessments of their own safety and risk. Think about what you have done well and what you are proud of as a school. Acknowledge the trauma, grief, difficulty and stress of individual and collective experiences, but also recognise your incredible strengths and successes.
Basic principles of good leadership are listen, learn and then act. (BPS Back to School.)
Heads, senior management teams and governors no doubt already know these principles. Many have shown incredible leadership during these very tough times. It is important to recognise that staff groups, as well as students and parents, will need to feel listened to and heard in order to feel confident in the leadership process. Try to find ways of encouraging feedback. Use online options such as Survey Monkey etc. to help preserve staff anonymity and thus encourage honest feedback. Publish brief summaries of feedback along with details of how you plan to respond to it. Doing so can increase a sense of understanding of thedecision-making process.
Support individual staff members
Individuals vary in how they assess risk depending on their own experiences, health and family situation. It is important that school teams support each other to feel able to express concerns and feel safe doing so. If you are feeling anxious as a member of staff, it may be understandably difficult to support anxious children.
- Try to create safe spaces and mechanisms for recognising and supporting staff anxiety and overload.
- Organise peer mentor pairings, so that everyone has someone they can go to who is not their line-manager to discuss concerns and air worries.
- Set up a virtual staff room. Many schools and workplaces have already organised these. They allow a regular time, e.g. morning break, to replace those moments where staff may previously have found five minutes in person to catch up, have a cup of tea, or have a conversation about a student that concerned them. Make this a protected time where it is OK to stop, whether staff are in the building or not, and whether this was previously possible or not. Teachers are notoriously overworked and never find it easy to find time. In times of stress it can feel even harder to stop, but is more important than ever. Lead by example if possible and give permission to more junior staff to do this.
We all know how important it is that everyone understands key ideas, otherwise confusion
and mistakes occur. This can be especially true when people are feeling anxious or stressed. We know that people who are anxious may only recall a fraction of the information they are told in doctors’ appointments (Kessels, 2003) , and the same is likely to be true in other situations too. This has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with overloaded attention.
Some top tips for effective communication during times of stress and anxiety:
- provide information in multiple formats;
- keep communication short and clear;
- repeat messages multiple times.
The biggest worry for many students and their parents is that they have fallen behind and will never catch up. There has been a lot of criticism in the press and on social media about how school closures, lockdown schooling and school re-openings have been handled, and how children have missed out on their education.
The media is well known for sensationalising issues, and many of the comments in the press have been incredibly unsettling for families. It is important that the message we give to children is one of encouragement and support. The focus for children and parents now is to do as well as they can, and not feel pressured to catch-up months of missed education in a short space of time. Everyone is in the same situation
Resilience is, in essence, the ability to cope when things go wrong: to bounce back and keep trying. It is about coping with adversity and with life events that place the person at risk of difficulties. (Zolkoski & Bullock, 2012).
An important way parents can help with nurturing resilience is to make it OK to feel anxious, nervous about returning to school, and to be concerned about the health and wellbeing of themselves and family members, but not to give up and to keep trying.
There are two pieces of evidence that we can remind our children and young people of at this time:
- Missing school isn’t uncommon. Under the circumstances, absences from school are expected and in some instances, are in the best interests of those students, teachers, and family associated. However, extended absences from school are common. It is not that unusual for someone to miss 6 months of schooling due to illness, injury or relocating country. These students can and do manage to come back and succeed. It is difficult, and they have to work hard, but it happens. The difference here is that this is true for everyone. It means that instead of it being one person on their own trying to catch up, it is everyone working together. It is possible!
- Teachers are good at their jobs. As parents, if you have struggled to help your children with their schoolwork, you may very well be aware that things are taught differently now! Generally speaking, teaching is better than it used to be and teachers are well-trained.
Remind young people, especially older ones, that the country hasn’t written them off. They are not a lost generation. This is a stumbling block and it may take time, but they can come back from it.
Take it in small steps
A fundamental principle of psychological management is to take small steps. When other emotional things overwhelm the brain, the brain finds it much more difficult to learn things at school. So, try not to overwhelm your child. Start somewhere, however small, and build up. Notice and pay attention to any win, no matter how small, and build from there. You wouldn’t expect someone to ride a bike up a mountain the first time they got on it, and this is the same. If the mountain is too daunting, they won’t want to try. Returning to school for some young people will be a joy and a blessing. But for some, it will feel like a pretty big mountain. We need to break it down into smaller steps and help young people find ways to start.
Start by making a list of possible tasks, and break them down into small steps, e.g. your child will need to prepare their school bag. The steps to achieving this might be:
- find my school bag;
- empty it of anything in there now;
- write a list of what I might need every day;
- get an empty box and put all my school things in it;
- fill my bag ready for school.
There will be many children who are transitioning from one setting to another, e.g. primary to secondary, or infant school site to junior school site. All children are going through some form of transition, even if only from Year 8 to Year 9. Usually schools and families mark these transitions with rituals and preparations. Understandably, many of these have been impossible, or have been altered in the current circumstances. There are a number of ways to help children achieve this, even in the current climate:
- Acknowledge and mark endings – e.g. create a year book or memory book, online collections of photos (with careful consideration of permission to share photos etc), send letters or postcards to friends and staff, or to the whole school, to acknowledge what your child will remember and how it feels to be moving on.
- Prepare for changes – visit new school locations, practice the ‘school run’ in whatever form you will normally make it and wherever possible allow your child to become familiar with the physical buildings, even if they can’t go inside.
- Look online – many schools have produced photos, videos or virtual tours to allow young people to get a sense of what the school and life there might look like.
- Make contact – find anyone you already know at the school, or if it is a new area, consider reaching out to local sources of information to find someone your child could ask questions to about what their new school is like
- Practice routines – e.g. putting on new uniform, washing hands,
wearing face masks or any other thing that may be required as part of the
school routine, now or in general.
Parents and carers
Communication is key. As above, when we feel stressed we often find it much more difficult to understand or retain information. Make communication clear, repetitive and available in different formats where possible.
Ask parents how it is going. Ask them to tell you about what is going wrong, what is not working, where the arguments and flash points at home are. Ensure parents know to whom they should submit feedback. There could be a designated member of staff who is coordinating and supporting this.
Be clear about what you want parents to do to support you and their children.
The school as a community
Holding onto hope
Despite the many negative experiences of Covid-19, post-traumatic growth theory research highlights the potential for positive growth and development as a consequence of trauma and challenging experiences. We have seen remarkable things in our communities and will see the same in our school communities. (BPS Back to School)
Talk about and publicise good news stories from within the school and the wider community.
Ways to celebrate this:
- Lockdown Trophy – fill a ‘trophy’
(real or virtual) with celebrations – e.g. invite everyone to send a message to a single email to celebrate any win, however small or large, and publish them (anonymously). This is a great way to celebrate achievements and demonstrate how well you have coped as a community.
- Tree of hope – (real or virtual) where everyone can write on a leaf what they hope for the future following lockdown.
Discover our full support page dedicated to creating a culture of positive wellbeing and mental health in your school.
The British Psychological Society has published a guidance document for schools, available here.
Some other great sources of information and guidance on worry, anxiety and youth mental health are:
If you feel that you or someone you know (be they a parent, child, teacher or young person) are at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, then it is important to seek immediate professional help.
Seek an emergency GP appointment or call 999 if you or someone you know is at immediate risk.