Resetting the basics and restoring resilience

Written by: Abbey Jones | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As we slowly recover from the pandemic, it would be a mistake to leap back into academic study from September without also tackling the long-term impact of Covid-19 on our pupils’ wellbeing, says Abbey Jones


Given the past year, no school can expect students to fulfil their full academic potential without first focusing on shoring up their mental health. From this perspective, looking after students’ wellbeing comes first.

The pandemic has been a life-changing event that we have all shared and continue to share, but is also something that we, and our students, have all experienced differently.

It is important to remember that for some, remote learning had many benefits: no long commute, no school uniform, no queueing for lunch, etc.

Perhaps more importantly for mental health, we have seen more time spent with family, easy access to activities to reduce stress between lessons, and less exposure to social difficulties or sensory overload that some might encounter at school.

However, for others, the sudden upheaval of the entire daily routine, the withdrawal of the usual sources of support, or more time spent in possibly stressful situations at home have been devastating.

This year has also upended our established pastoral practices and patterns. Years of PSHE teaching warning against too much screen time were put aside as we moved towards online learning, PE teachers suddenly had a vastly reduced ability to encourage and monitor physical activity levels, and those students for whom socialising does not come naturally have found themselves out of practice on the return to on-site teaching.

The key is to recognise which students have come through the last year or so relatively unscathed, and those who are going to need on-going intervention to restore lost resilience and rebuild mental strength.


Restoring lost resilience

Academic success naturally follows good mental health. If we support young people in building the latter, we empower them to work on the former. The approaches needed to improve student mental health right now are not materially different from what schools are used to doing.

The difference is in scale – a greater proportion of students have experienced trauma to some degree than likely would have during a typical year. And so the resource required to support them will be greater.

A school-wide focus reminding students how to look after their mental health and where to seek support is important. Ensuring that students know someone really does have the time to listen to them, and genuinely wants to do so because they care about what they have to say, is vital.

Supporting staff to model a calm, balanced and adaptable approach to the ever-changing world we find ourselves in will have a positive knock-on effect for the students they work with.


Resetting the basics

Schools have a big task on their hands to re-establish habits and expectations. It might be tempting to gloss over these issues in favour of giving pupils some leeway after a difficult year – or indeed to jump straight into prioritising academic “catch-up”.

However, at the point where everything starts to feel more “normal” again, and schools are able to resume the added extras which have been so sorely missing over the last year, directing resources, time and effort resetting the basics will be vital to long-term recovery.

Every year the stigma around mental health lessens. Hopefully the increased dialogue around the subject during the pandemic will have accelerated this process.

Media headlines have highlighted the importance of the little everyday things which have improved our wellbeing during lockdown: helping others in our communities, expressing our creativity, enhancing or changing up our workstations, for example. We can carry the benefits associated with these activities into schools with minimal cost and effort.

For students, providing opportunities to help others might mean re-establishing or setting up programmes for them to work with younger children at their school or neighbouring settings, to volunteer to read, play games or chat at a local care home (Covid restrictions may mean this has to be virtual for the time being), or to exchange letters with residents of a migrant centre working on their English.

Encouraging creativity could include asking students to update display boards around school, getting the art department to oversee a collaborative mural-painting session on a blank corridor wall, or running a weekly themed photography competition.

Updating the working environment where pupils spend so much of their time would perhaps involve tutor groups decorating their form room to reflect their collective personalities, empowering teachers to plan to make wider use of the whole school site for certain lessons, or simply getting classes up and out of those well-worn seating plans.

We should all be looking for ways to retain and bolster the new-found appreciation of the value of looking after our mental health, and the often quick and simple ways to do so.


Conclusion

The last year has brought about a fuller understanding of just how vital a role schools play in the wellbeing of children and young people. The vulnerability of our most at-risk students, especially during the school holidays, has been highlighted by the in-school provision provided for vulnerable students while everyone else learned from home.

We have already heard that the government has promised increased funding to bolster mental health support in schools (DfE, 2021); hopefully they will also look at how to ensure the continuation of this care outside of term time. More generally, policy-makers, parents and non-pastoral staff must now recognise the clear importance of schools focusing on the wellbeing of their pupils as much as they do on academic results.

  • Abbey Jones is deputy head pastoral at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, an independent school for students aged four to 18 based in Hertfordshire.


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Schools and colleges to benefit from boost in expert mental health support, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3ezMqRs


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Sign up SecEd Bulletin