Children struggling with trauma and adverse childhood experiences were already struggling emotionally before Covid-19. In an average classroom, the schools I was supporting had at least fifteen children struggling with their wellbeing in each class! Some children were struggling with anxiety others confidence or self-belief, some were in care, some had ADHD others had attachment issues- the list goes on. Staff were frequently logging concerns about the possible neglect and abuse of their students. Children were running off around school and having meltdowns that resulted in them huddled in a corridor crying, hiding in toilets and walking out of classrooms.
The children coming back into our schools in what may be as early as June are still the same children, with the same struggles, and I worry that the Covid-19 measures the government have advised schools to follow will just trigger more anxiety and stress for these children. My initial thoughts are – How can we help these children to feel safe (not from the virus, but emotionally)? Will these children be rejected for their dysregulation because they ‘are a risk’ to others? Won’t the new guidelines just make them feel more threatened and more unsettled? Isn’t the fact that they have been exposed to more trauma and danger at home for two months enough, without now taking away the familiarity of the one safe space they had?
The truth is that those children who were struggling before lockdown are going to be struggling when we return. They are going to be struggling even more. School leaders are trying their best to accommodate the guidelines set out by the government and to ensure social distancing happens in their school. Once those practical measures are in place, the next step is to think about how to manage the children’s wellbeing. The concern I have is this – Children will be feeling more overwhelmed than ever now, they will have higher levels of stress hormone than before, they will be feeling more anxious, afraid and threatened. The fact is, when Jack becomes overwhelmed and needs to run out of a room – then he will. If Sara feels threatened because she is being told she can’t do something over and over again and she finds herself getting angry and needing to lash out then she will! If Omar needs to run into other peoples’ classrooms to hide when he feels unsafe – then he will! A child who could not regulate themselves, understand their feelings or manage their behaviour before lockdown, will not be able to do so now either!
How can we prepare for this? How do we support these children?
Will this type of behaviour (which does not follow social distancing guidelines) be met with panic, rejection or punishment? Will that result in children being sent home because they are not following the social distancing rules? Will they be told that is for ‘their safety’ or will they be isolated from their peers for fear of ‘putting everyone at risk’?
We need to prioritise wellbeing in all of this, especially if we want the children to learn how to cope with adversity and challenges. This is the perfect time to teach them how to manage stress, but to do that, we need to model it!
When a child or an adult feels stressed or threatened they begin to work from the survival brain and not the rational reflective brain. The survival brain switches on as a first response and means that you are more likely to become more emotional, angry, frustrated and snappy. You may also avoid situations and want to get away from them or freeze and not know how to respond. The parts of the brain we need to help us apply reasoning, reflection, empathy, problem-solving skills and memory are all shut down. The children coming back into your care will almost definitely be working from survival brain. Especially those who have spent the majority of lockdown in a home that has not been safe or consistent. It’s important that adults in schools can recognise this and feel confident to respond with connection and understanding. Although it is equally just as important to remember that they too may be working from survival brain and will need support from school to help them to manage their wellbeing, so they can focus on the children.
It is vital that during this time that schools provide a space that feels nurturing, loving, welcoming and safe for the children returning. I know that this may seem difficult in light of the physical changes you have to make to the environment. I have spoken to many Head Teachers who have found it emotional just looking around at the rooms they have had to put together. There is, however, so much that you can do despite the circumstances to ensure you are creating an environment that feels safe and nurturing. Never underestimate the power of a teacher! You can become more therapeutic in your approaches and support the children by what you do, how you respond and what you say.
Some top tips to get you started would be:
1. Respond to any emotional outburst/ challenging behaviour with reflection to build connection!
The first challenge is to help the children trust school again. This may be more difficult now that their environments are so clinical and isolating. For the children, it is yet another change and as you know, for many vulnerable children this can become a trigger. With social distancing measures in place, the best thing you can do is to use your language to create a sense of safety and begin emotional regulation. The key here is to help teach them to recognise their feelings and behaviours and begin to develop their emotional intelligence which will, in turn, help them to manage their mental health.
Every time a child displays a behaviour or response that is linked to their feelings (angry, disappointed, frustrated, anxious, nervous, embarrassed) tell them! The trick to therapeutic teaching is that you can recognise that a child needs support to develop their self-awareness and emotional intelligence. When a child finds something difficult- this is an opportunity for you to teach them about themselves.
Here is the method:
1. Use their name
2. Reflect their feeling back to them
3. Reflect their behaviour back to them
This will increase their awareness of what their feelings are and how those feelings feel.
“Sarah, you are feeling frustrated, I can tell because you’re turning your body away from me”
“Fahad, you are very angry right now, that is why you want to break things”
“Timmy, your feeling anxious about the new routine, you are not sure what to do”
“Emily, you are feeling disappointed that you didn’t win, I can tell because you’ve gone quiet”
Use this technique in every single situation you can and before any sanction/ conversation/ solution is given. If you want to learn more about Therapeutic Teaching Skills you can learn more about our Therapeutic Teaching Course.
2. Calm the children with music
At the moment, soft furnishings such as tents and cushions are not allowed, which means you are limited by what you can offer children as a self-regulation tool. Instead use music to help reduce those stress hormones and help them to regulate internally, promoting a feeling of peace and calm in the room. You will be surprised at how much of an impact it has on the children and on you too! Play calming music through YouTube as the children come in and before they go home. Or even throughout the day (if it helps). One of my favourites is – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Q634rbsypE&t=699s.
3. Encourage self-expression and self-reflection with a wellbeing diary
Give every child a notebook and encourage the children to write/ draw/ doodle their feelings down. Help them to identify their feelings in whatever way that feels best for them. They might want to draw a picture, write a word or use colours to represent how they feel inside. This is a great way to develop their self- awareness and get some of their feelings out! You could ask children whether they would like to share their entry for the day which could lead on to some very important discussions. Remember though, It is important to let the children know that they do not have to share what is in their books with others if they don’t want to. You might also want to mention that you will read their entries when they have gone home, so they feel they can share worries and feelings safely. Maybe they could decorate their notebook and make it extra special.
4. Raise self-esteem and self-belief with your backboards
I know it is likely that many of the children in school will not be in their normal classrooms when they return. You are having to find whatever space you have and make it work but whatever spaces you create, consider re-purposing your backboards. I have never been a fan of backboards and always advise schools to change how they are used and I think this is more important now than ever. The conventional backboard with bright coloured backing paper and clashing borders topped with multicoloured laminated work will only increase the feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed. Right now, they probably have little or no purpose anyway! Instead, back every board in one calming colour and use the whole board to display a quote. Cut out each letter to create one purposeful message you want to communicate to your class whilst they are going through this unsettling time. Some good ones would be:
“Believe in yourself”
“Be kind, spread joy and see good”
“Fill your mind with positive thoughts”
“You are special”
“Never give up”
“You are going to do great things”
5. Consider a wellbeing curriculum
This one has been needed for a long time! Create a wellbeing curriculum, one that puts wellbeing at the core of the children’s education. One that acknowledges that a child who feels unhappy, unloved, unsafe and has no self-belief will not and can not learn. The priority should always be to teach them first that they are loved, then that they can be anyone they want to be, that they are unique and special for who they are. Teach them to believe in themselves and to be inspired, creative learners who want to contribute to a world with confidence that they have something unique to offer.
Emotional intelligence is a better indicator of success than IQ – so let’s start with that! Create a timetable that includes activities specifically designed to teach the children how to manage their wellbeing, like meditation for example. Ensure that lessons are focused on mindset, self-belief and mental health and start conversations about things that they need to know now, like body image and social media. Give them the tools they need to overcome adversity and challenges like Covid-19 and make a real impact on their lives. After all, does the current curriculum prepare the children for life? I am not sure it does.
Further Information and Resources
- You can follow Shahana on Twitter @Shahana_tpc
- Read more of Shahana’s best practice tips for school leaders on Headteacher Update – https://www.headteacher-update.com/search-results/shahana-knight/81/1/
- Learn more about our Therapeutic School Award here – https://www.tpctherapy.co.uk/therapeutic-school-award
- Learn more about our Therapeutic Teaching Course here – https://www.tpctherapy.co.uk/therapeutic-teaching-course