Dave McPartlan is a former Assistant Headteacher and currently a first year PhD student at the University of Cumbria.
With over 35 years of teaching experience, Dave most recently held the role of Designated Mental Health lead at a large 11-18 comprehensive academy in North East Cumbria, where he had responsibility for all pastoral matters including welfare, behaviour, safeguarding and attendance. In the final two years at the school Dave led the introduction of a whole school mental health strategy.
Now a PhD student specialising in adolescent mental health, his research aims to investigate the efficacy of a whole school mental health strategy upon secondary school students. Given the extensive experience that he has gained on the ground as well as his research from his PhD, Dave has created a helpful blueprint to help school leadership teams ensure that student mental health needs are prioritised when they re-open post lockdown.
Dave McPartlan can be contacted with any questions or feedback at [email protected]
A Blueprint for Schools Re-opening Post Lockdown
The impact Corona Virus (C19) is having on all walks of society is likely to be extremely difficult to quantify. We are all living through unprecedented times: a public health emergency, financial catastrophe and large-scale community trauma. It is safe to say that the section of society that will be hardest hit by the crisis will be the developing child (Meredith, 2020). Whilst the government and teachers argue about return dates, there is acceptance that the impact of the lockdown could have an immeasurable impact on the lives and the education of our young people. The disease is new yet there is research that highlights the likely impacts and what leaders need to do to minimise these; these measures will ensure that any damage done is both short lived and minimal. Whilst crises can reveal both strengths and weaknesses in individuals and systems alike, what is critical is how quickly those in power respond in particular to the vulnerabilities that have been exposed (Minke, 2020).
The biggest single impact on a child’s development will undoubtedly be the feeling of loss that in turn can develop the negative dynamics of bereavement, anxiety and trauma.
The feelings of loss experienced by children during this period of confinement are numerous. At one extreme some will suffer the loss of a family member or a close friend, however, there are many other types of loss that will have an emotional impact on children during lockdown. As well as many losing their freedom to make choices children will have also lost opportunities, structures and routines. One of the biggest felt losses for adolescents is the loss of access to their friends, something that has the potential to have a big impact on how they feel about themselves. A young person invests so much of themselves within the dynamics and interactions of the peer group that it is inevitably linked to the concept of who they are; it is about their self-esteem, self-image and self-concept. This loss, and all that it brings with it, has the potential to be profound(Carpenter, B & Carpenter, 2020). What should never be overlooked is the fact that loss can also lead to the simple but powerful emotion of sadness, as young people mourn the life they once had as well as the loss of contact with friends and all but their closest family; it is not unusual for them to feel bereaved.
There are already worrying signs that lockdown is developing issues of anxiety within children. Young Minds (2020) reports of an increase in panic attacks and self-harm as youngsters worry about catching the disease or whether their friends and family will be impacted by it. Anxiety can also have a detrimental effect on sleep patterns which in turn can itself contribute to a decline in emotional wellbeing. Anxiety and sadness are normal emotions and a necessary part of the body’s coping mechanism. However, problems arise when these feelings start to impair one’s ability to cope; those who are anxious will also struggle to reintegrate back in to school (TES, 2020). Further anxieties arise as the potential return to school results in children perceiving a negative impact upon their peer group relationships: will I still be a part of that peer group? Will I still be in classes with my close friends? (Waite P, 2020). Schools need to take this likely increase in anxiety seriously as the science is clear that anxiety in children leads to inhibited cognition; put simply anxious children don’t learn as well as those who aren’t suffering anxiety (e.g., Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007; Owens, Stevenson, Hadwin, & Norgate, 2012, 2014).
An ongoing study looking at students feelings during the lockdown (School Dash, 2020), that to date has surveyed nearly 9000 children of primary and secondary school age, has found that nearly 33% of students up to the 13 years of age, report feeling lonely. There seems, however, to be a bigger impact on 6th form students, with over 50% of them reporting feelings of loneliness with between 20-25% reporting feeling lonely ‘very often’. Loneliness has been identified as a key variable health predictive and has, amongst other things, been linked to depression, eating and sleep disturbances as well as being found to trigger biological stress processes (Adam et al., 2011). The study also suggests that the greatest impact on life satisfaction is loneliness particularly for children of secondary school age. It is clear that as schools look to supporting children both during and after lockdown, they need to ask the ‘right’ questions of their students in order to identify the ones who have been impacted most by these issues.
The US Department of Mental Health and Addiction Service (DMHAS, 2014) has defined trauma in the following way: “Trauma refers to extreme stress that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Individual trauma can result from an event, a series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. It is not the objective facts of an event that determines whether that event is traumatic; it is the way in which each individual internalises the emotional experience of the event. Traumatic events or circumstances often have lasting adverse effects on an individual’s basic sense of self, trust in others, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” It is now accepted that trauma is not the rarity that we once understood it to be but it is a central part of our social reality. It is not necessarily seen as a single event but as a
deep and insidious experience that becomes central to an individual’s identity (Fallot & GEN, 2015). Schools need to be cognisant to the fact that many of our children will have experienced the lockdown, and loss of freedoms associated with it, as trauma; services available to these youngsters need to reflect this.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are accepted as being detrimental to the health and wellbeing of young people. The links between ACEs and lockdown are plain to see as trauma can result from the impact of this period of lockdown. Many of the young people who will have suffered most during this period are those already at risk of ACEs and the rising numbers recorded of domestic violence(Standingtogether.org, n.d.), mental health problems (Waite P, 2020) and financial difficulties (Kempson & Poppe, 2020) will compound the problem. However, with the increase in difficulties around the feelings of bereavement and loneliness will mean some children are at further added risk.
The consequences of a higher ACEs score could result in poorer outcomes for children both now and in later life as demonstrated below.
The advice for working with victims of ACEs is that we use a ‘Trauma-informed approach’ (Walsh, 2018). This suggests schools need to focus on developing a culture that is ‘trauma informed’ and that focusses on the following 3 Rs of
- Realising the impact of the trauma on the community and be aware of potential roads to recovery
- Recognising the signs and symptoms of the trauma in the children and other community members
- Responding by ensuring that trauma knowledge into everyday procedures and practices
Taken from https://www.mentalhealth.org/get-help/trauma
The landscape that schools are working in post lockdown has shifted from the ones that dictated previous to C19. For a number of years now schools have been put under an obligation by government to prioritise children from the ‘pupil premium cohort’ as defined by the DfE(Foster & Long, 2018); typically, these are the students who come from economically poorer households. Schools receive additional funding for these children and are held accountable for how they spend the money on them. This pandemic has created a new cohort of children such as these; parents will have lost their jobs,(Elliott L, 2020) incomes will have been reduced and a new ‘hidden cohort’ (Khan J, 2020), with no extra funding, will be arriving back at school. The challenge for schools will be to identify these new children and find ways of supporting their emotional needs.
Principles for moving forward
The return to school after lockdown is going to be a challenge on many fronts and the emotional health of the returning children needs to be at the centre of any plan; without it there is a danger that children’s development and progress will be hampered (Meredith, 2020). Before schools can develop a strategy to support their community, it is important that they understand the guiding principles that may be put in place to support the children. Each child will have experienced lockdown in their own unique way. The resilient amongst them, some of whom will have used it an opportunity to support others, will have seen it as an opportunity to grow(F. Walsh, 2007). Most individuals will have coped or adapted and will recover within months suffering no longer-term issues (Litz, 2004; McFarlane, 1996); such children will however, still benefit from holistic community acts that acknowledge the difficulties and tragedies of the past weeks. There are some who will require ‘psychological first aid’ to help them and there will be a small number who will require significant input from mental health professionals. These are significant challenges for schools that are under immense pressure to not only look after and support children but also ensure that they catch up after over two months absence from school.
There are 2 simple guiding principles that schools need to embrace if they are to address the emotional needs of their children:
– The rebuilding of relationships
– The rebuilding and development of trust
The rebuilding of relationships
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more he/she will be able to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agent of change and the most powerful human therapy is love”
(Perry, B & Szalavitz, 2007)
One of the keys to helping our children recover and return to some semblance of normality is through the re-establishment of relationships. The notion that as children and teachers return to school everything will be back to how it was, is a flawed one. Everyone, will have experienced this time in their own particular way but what we will all have in common is that there will have been an impact on most of our relationships. As children are confined in their home’s relationships are likely to have altered as communication between themselves and others have taken on a very different look. At best these relationships will have been conducted through social media, at worst they will have been none existent. Many children will also worry that their peer group may have changed and they may no longer belong within that group.
Schools need to prioritise the re-building of relationships within their community; from the moment they walk through the school gate the emphasis needs to be on talking and listening to them. Perry (2015) talks about human to human interactions as being psychological events and that building healthy relationships can help create healing environments for those who have suffered trauma. Treisman, (2018) states that “Every interaction is an intervention” and schools need to ensure that they apply this principle to their returning charges. School staff need to be the empathetic listeners who can facilitate this therapeutic function and this is not asking them to act as trained therapists (Meredith, 2020). Schools need structures to ensure that those children who need it most are known to all staff and staff need to know that the ones who need it most will often be the those who least want to engage!
The rebuilding and development of trust
A thread throughout this paper is that we are living in a very different times in schools as well as society in general. This inevitable change can be used by school leaders to work with their community to rebuild trust and start shaping the future by revisiting the schools core values. It is important that children are listened to and that this is done through co-construction between students and school (Carpenter, B & Carpenter, 2020). School leaders need to engage the children in a re-evaluation of what has changed and what they think their school should stand for in this time of recovery. This also gives children the chance to reflect on what has happened and put their own experiences in to a community building context. This is not just about allowing children to tell their stories, it is also about actively listening to them to ensure that schools are aware of who exactly needs support. This process is also about building hope by asking children to contribute to what the future values of the school should be. Good can come from this tragedy as schools can assist their students by recognising what has happened, learning from it and so being able to grow as they move forward with hope (Meredith, 2020).
On a practical level schools can use the spare spaces, they are likely to have as they open in a staggered fashion, to target and then re-engage their highest priority children. Whilst the government are highlighting certain age groups to return, there is nothing to stop schools inviting key individuals and families to supportive (socially distanced) meetings as a first step back towards full integration. The return to school needs to be seen as a ‘first day’ back for all students, whenever that may be for them; there will be new rules and old ones will need to be re-enforced. Students will need reassurance that their safety is also the school’s priority.
Schools are facing unprecedented times: they are being challenged on a practical level as they grapple with the problems around remote schooling and now a phased return to school; they are also being challenged philosophically as they struggle with the concept of their ‘purpose’ in post corona virus Britain. The wellbeing agenda, now more than ever, needs to be at the heart of every school in the land. Schools serve and reflect their communities and as such they need to choose their own paths as they put a ‘recovery plan’ in place. The government should be looking at boosting school budgets to ensure that schools can put pastoral programmes in place for returning who need guidance and support. The well documented problems around CAMHS (Henshaw, 2019) mean that radical approaches may well be required to provide capacity for the much-needed acute end services that our young people will so desperately require post C19.
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