“A bubble of key worker children walked by me today, chanting and hollering and flailing about like zombies, with arms outstretched, but not touching the person in front. As I tuned in, I realised they were singing: ‘Social distanced conga, social distanced conga, da daa daaa da, da daa daaa da’ Owning it!” (Ref. 1)
What will it feel like in September, for a child stepping back into a classroom? With all the known unknowns of a new school year, but also after the experience of lockdown, with all the unknowns of the post lockdown world and new school routines amid the ‘new normal’?
The teacher who reported the social distanced conga in a recent conversation summed up children’s adaptability, but also how while all the children are in it together, each is also apart. Not only in how they adapt to new rules, but also in how they cope with their emotions.
Children will be returning from a huge range of experiences. Some may have had a pretty enjoyable lockdown, bonding with parents and siblings, with good resources in the home and online, and plenty of attention and love. For these children, there might be resentment or anxiety at going back to school at all.
Others will have been in highly stressful environments with highly stressed parents, and maybe with very little contact with anyone else, without resources, or sometimes even without even enough to eat. For these children, while getting back to school might be a release, they’ll be bringing all the accumulated anxiety and anger that’s built up through the lockdown. There is a known correlation between stress levels of primary caregivers and their children. As California’s Surgeon General comments:
“We’re going to see increased stress-related cognitive impairment and diseases and probably increased toxic stress.” (Ref. 2)
As well as this, many will have experienced bereavements, and may be bewildered or grieving. As a headteacher writes:
“What’s the impact going to be of so many parents and grandparents dying? I’ve never existed in a space where a community has lost so many people.” (Ref. 3)
Separation anxiety, school refusal, more complaints of physical ailments, difficulties with concentration, angry outbursts, and self-harm are just some of the ways in which this stress could manifest among children and adolescents in school.
And we also know that children with a variety of special educational needs, for example those on the autism spectrum, will present with their own challenges in response to this inherently unsettling situation.
How can we help to manage all of these emotions?
As we know, while some children express anxiety very visibly perhaps as anger, others may express anxiety quietly as withdrawal. Helping children manage such a wide spectrum of behaviours always presents huge challenges.
Perhaps the first step, which many schools are already taking, is to think about how they’ll speak to the children about COVID; finding a way to acknowledge all of the medical, social, practical and emotional impacts, without either scaremongering or denying what’s happening.
Then we come to listening to, acknowledging and validating children’s emotions. Here the simplest of techniques can make a huge difference in defusing strong emotions. For example:
- If a child is lashing out verbally or physically, the difference between saying, “Why are you angry? Don’t be angry” and thus essentially telling them to repress the anger, or saying, “I understand you feel angry, it’s okay to feel angry”, while managing the behaviour, “And we can’t let you lash out like that,” and then offering another way forward: “How about you take it out on this bean bag?”
Or again, with a withdrawn child:
- The difference between saying, “You should join in,” versus, “Is there a reason you don’t feel like taking part?”
And yes, of course, this is easier to write in a blog than it is to do in the moment!
Some Whole Class Strategies
Some strategies can be used with the whole class, and fit in with the organisation issues that teachers are grappling with, bringing children back together socially after such a long time without the range of everyday social interactions. For example:
- Creating a visual timetable, and going through it every morning, to build up routines, in order to reduce uncertainty and anxiety
- Regular (socially distanced!) “Circle Times”, where children can share or hear other children share experiences and feelings, so that they know they ‘aren’t the only one’ facing challenges. And in this context, up to a point, teachers might also say, “I’ve felt something like that”, validating children’s concerns.
Then there’s the curriculum. Back to our teacher:
“All the talk about the vulnerable children falling further behind while at home … what they’re going back to may well be a miserable slog through all the subjects they struggle with, making them feel even less valued, with little time for the subjects where they may flourish. There are vulnerable children who only engage with the wider curriculum and will be narrowed, marginalised further.”
So, another strategy:
- Regular art time or other creative time, for children to get their thoughts and feelings out in different cathartic forms, and thus start to process their emotions.
Some Strategies for Each Child
Some strategies are more individual, about what each individual child is experiencing. For example:
- “How are you feeling?” daily check-in system (something like the Daily Mental Health Check-In Board on our Free Resources page) to help each child to recognise their own emotions, and enable staff to engage with them and support them through a tough patch.
- A Coping Skills mat for every student or a poster on the classroom wall, so that each child has a visual idea of things that can help in front of them, if they get emotionally overwhelmed.
- A personal journal for no one else to see, not even the teacher, and some daily time to get their thoughts and feelings out in words, pictures, doodles or colours.
And we mustn’t forget the teachers and other staff.
First there’s the immense work challenge. Our teacher again…
“But trepidation about having bubbles of 30, staggered start times, hygiene routines, lunches in classrooms AND a focus on Maths and English over the wider curriculum to play catch-up from September.” (Ref. 1)
While our headteacher coping with bereavements…
“…is trying not to cry.” (Ref. 3)
Our free weekly mental health and wellbeing tip for teachers here may help. Many of the kinds of strategies that are helpful for children can also be helpful for adults, and we’ll return to this in the next blog!
Children will be returning to school from a whole range of situations and experiences, as unemployment, bereavement, and all manner of other stresses take their toll on families due to the pandemic. Many will therefore be bringing into school a maelstrom of emotions, while simultaneously being expected to adjust to new norms in school and the pressures of having to catch up with academic work. Staff, too, will bring their own personal and professional challenges.
Validating emotions, and having compassion for each others’ unique emotional journeys will be intrinsic to instilling mental and emotional wellbeing. A combination of school-wide, whole class and individual strategies to support pupils will be important. Schools which will weather the storm of the pandemic better are likely to be those in which decision-makers are adaptive to the needs of their community, and are able to find creative and compassionate solutions to alleviate the psychological impact in the uncertain months ahead.
Written by Ava S. Hasan & The Mentally Well Schools Team
www.mentallywellschools.co.uk An online platform of free mental health and wellbeing resources, paid downloadable skills-based programmes and support for busy schools.
P.S. If you have something to say in response to this post, please comment below. We’d welcome your thoughts!
Ref. 1: Private Conversation 30th June 2020 (reported with permission)
Ref. 2: Los Angeles Times 7th May 2020
Ref. 3: The Guardian 4th July 2020