As a new, very different academic year begins, supporting children’s mental health as they return to school has become a key priority for teachers and school leaders across the country.
Teachers and school leaders, like you, who want to ensure that children manage their transition from lockdown life to school life as smoothly as possible. Teachers and leaders, like you, who understand that it’s going to be a difficult journey for many of them.
But as a teacher you’re used to wearing a number of different hats. Teacher, social worker, parent, nose-wiper. But as children return to school after lockdown, you’re adding mental health supporter to your array of headwear. Not that you weren’t doing it before, but things have gone up a gear…and then some.
Since lockdown began, there’s been a lot of concern around the impact on children’s academic progress. Some will have really enjoyed and benefitted from being taught at home and may find it tricky to settle back into a class of 30. Others may not have engaged as well with home learning. Indeed, recent figures in a BBC report suggest that pupils are now three months behind where they were.
For children at both ends of the spectrum (and everyone in between), the most important thing to remember is that, until they feel safe and happy back at school, any ‘learning’ will be minimal.
For you, this new role may feel overwhelming. Not only do you need to manage expectations for academic progress in a bid to close the reported gap, you’re also acutely aware that without appropriate mental health support for pupils, that gap may continue to grow.
So, what can be done? Well, here at Laughology, we want to support you as you tackle the unknown road ahead. We’ve put together our top tips to help you become more confident to support children as they manage their mental health in the coming weeks and months. We know you’re the experts in the teaching stuff, but we’re experts in the mental health stuff.
Together, we make the perfect team.
Supporting children’s mental health after lockdown can be done in a variety of ways. Try some of our suggestions and see what works. Every child is different so will manage their mental health in their own way. You may need to adapt and change your approach, depending on the child in question. Nevertheless, these are strategies that can be easily implemented.
If a child wants to discuss how they’re feeling, try not to dismiss their emotions. Instead listen to their concerns and reassure them that it’s okay to feel that way about change, uncertainty etc. Ask the child to share what’s helped them when they’ve felt worried before and see whether they could adopt a similar approach now. If appropriate, share with them what you do when you’re feeling worried.
Work with all children to turn their negative thinking into more positive thoughts. Here at Laughology, we call it FLIP-it Thinking, a way of reframing negatives to positives. Encourage children to become ‘language detectives’ and spot any negative language being used, such as ‘always’ and ‘never’ and ask them how they could rephrase it to be more positive, e.g. ‘sometimes’ or ‘at the moment’.
When we feel worried about something that seems insurmountable, we often dwell on the enormity of the problem. We wonder how we’re ever going to get past it. Children feel the same. The best way to manage this is to break the problem/worry down into manageable steps.
If a child is concerned about a whole day at school, why not focus on the first lesson and managing that. A whole day at school can feel overwhelming if they’ve not been there for six months, so focus on a shorter amount of time. As short as feels manageable for the child.
Children need to feel as though they can approach you about a problem when the time is right for them. It might not always feel like the right time for you, but that’s the nature of children – they may have been bottling something up for a long time and just can’t hold it in any longer!
If this happens, acknowledge that the child has shared something with you and arrange a time when you’ll be able to talk to them about it further, e.g. lunch time or break time. That way, they know you’ve heard them, but also that you’re going to make time for them that same day.
You might want to set up a ‘wellbeing box’ or a ‘worries box’ for the children to add notes to, especially if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you right away. Check it daily.
Laughology’s Happy-Centred School PSHE programme identifies 5 wellbeing enablers for children. Build activities that promote these areas into and around other, more-academic tasks:
Have regular circle times to ask children how they’re managing and whether anyone wants to share something that’s working well for them. Why not bring in mindfulness or meditation into the classroom? Or try to build positive class mantras which children can say if they’re feeling worried or overwhelmed.
It’s important for you to remember that this is new for everyone in schools everywhere. It’s daunting to think of what might be ahead of you, so just focus on what you can control right now. It’s part of our human nature to want to know all the answers, but it’s just not possible. As Barbara Johnson said, ‘Change is a process, not an event’.
A child who may have been managing absolutely brilliantly for the first few weeks could suddenly have a big wobble. Another, who has been struggling, might need additional support from CAMHS or other professionals. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean that you should have done more. It just means that more specialised support is needed.
All you can do is what you’re doing right now. Providing stability, love and support to the children in your care. An ear to listen, a voice of reassurance. It’s not about being an expert in mental health, it’s about being someone who’s approachable. Someone who can, if necessary, signpost children to the experts who will help them further. Someone who the children trust.
And at times of uncertainty, that’s all that’s important.