In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, how can we ‘build back better’ for mental health in our school communities?
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to highlight what’s really important. And over the past few months, I’ve been heartened to hear how schools in Scotland have championed the importance of mental health, as we navigate the unusual and complex waters in which we now find ourselves.
I work as a trainer and school-based clinician for Place2Be, a mental health charity that has been working in partnership with primary and secondary schools in Scotland for 18 years. Place2Be’s work to support children, young people and their families in our partner schools continued remotely throughout the lockdown period. Our training and consultation services moved online, with 900 school staff in Scotland signing up for our Mental Health Champions – Foundation programme (a four-week digital introduction to positive mental health in schools) since late March 2020.
Our Mental Health Champions training for class teachers and school leaders also moved into cyberspace. These programmes – ‘big siblings’ to the Foundation programme – would usually be offered face-to-face. So during lockdown we introduced a blended model, featuring digital learning materials and online discussion, plus live interactive sessions facilitated through video conferencing platforms. Put together, our work over the last few months has given us a unique view of issues and concerns relating to mental health, as they have arisen in school communities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Data collected by Place2Be early in lockdown revealed that family relationship difficulties, loneliness and isolation, and managing their children’s behaviours were the most frequently mentioned issues for parents and carers seeking our support. Any of these issues, on their own, could put considerable strain on a family system; in combination they have the potential to act as a contemporary “toxic trio” for the mental health of everyone in the household. Add to the mix the myriad other factors that have been causing distress for families during lockdown (including health concerns and illness, bereavement, financial difficulties and anxieties about basic needs, like having enough food) and we start to sense the complex web of stressors whose consequences will be felt in school communities well into the new academic year and beyond.
Loneliness and isolation, plus the pressures of juggling work and caring responsibilities, also came up as key themes in our ‘Place2Think’ consultation conversations. In my online training work last term, school leaders discussed a wide range of issues affecting their staff teams. I would love to say “.... you’ll know all about these issues already”, because I very much hope that colleagues have been sharing their concerns and challenges with you over recent months. But even in schools where staff communication is usually effective, our usual opportunities for connecting with one another were significantly compromised during the school closure period. And even under ‘normal’ circumstances, it turns out that school staff do not always feel able to ask for help when it comes to their own wellbeing. In a recent survey only 56% of teachers said they felt confident to approach school leaders about their own mental health[i].
In the same survey, just a third (34%) felt confident to identify mental health difficulties from the behaviour of their pupils, and only a quarter said they felt confident to help children and young people with serious emotional, behavioural or social issues. Thirty-one per cent reported that managing classroom behaviour is stressful or anxiety-provoking. An alarming 20% thought it unlikely that they would still be teaching in five years’ time.
Nonetheless, the majority of staff in Scotland accessing our training during lockdown said that they were looking forward to the teaching year ahead. So how can school leaders support their staff teams, as well as pupils and families, to move forward positively in relation to mental health and emotional resilience? In particular, how can school staff be supported to enable the vital work of wellbeing recovery in their school communities, at a time when they too are affected by on-going uncertainties and stresses related to the pandemic?
It will be difficult to know how pupils and their families fared during the school closure period. The impact of their recent experiences may not become apparent until further down the line. Some young people have been coping with significant adversities like domestic violence, parental mental ill-health or substance use, in relative isolation. Others had fewer ‘external’ stressors but will have found learning independently at home to be more than they could manage – they may well bring their frustrations into school with them. Some will have been coping well at home, or perhaps even thriving, particularly if they find the school environment challenging.
Given this mixed picture (and the likelihood that a greater-than-usual number of pupils may present with signs of emotional distress) it will be important to support all school staff to feel confident in recognising and supporting mental health concerns over the coming weeks and months. We cannot expect a few nominated colleagues to shoulder the responsibility for wellbeing across the school community. Building confidence, capacity, and strategic whole-school approaches to mental health are the cornerstones of Place2Be’s professional development for school communities. For example, in our Mental Health Champions – School Leader programmes, we focus on developing each participant’s vision for their mentally healthy school, and on helping them figure out how to move towards it.
Opportunities to step back from the “doing” of the work and to reflect on its impact will be critical for all school staff. In our recent Creating a Mentally Healthy School workshops (available to Head Teachers enrolled on Education Scotland’s Excellence in Headship programme), participants noted how helpful it had been, in the midst of coronavirus chaos, to make time to stop and think in the company of colleagues. Several commented that, unless they had already been signed up to a relevant training, they probably wouldn’t have felt able to carve out time for reflection about mental health and emotional wellbeing – but the benefits of doing so were immediate and obvious.
Opportunities for reflective practice, such as the Place2Think [ii]conversations we facilitate in our Place2Be partner schools and can offer online to school leaders across Scotland are something we feel should be routinely available in education settings. We are part of a growing national conversation about making reflective supervision a regular part of professional life for school staff in Scotland. As Professor Rowena Arshad (former Head of Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh) pointed out in her recent blog for The Scotsman[iii], spaces for reflection improve staff morale and wellbeing, support staff retention, and positively impact the whole school ethos - not least because they help to cultivate an atmosphere where talking openly about mental health is welcome and encouraged.
At Place2Be we firmly believe that mental health has always been “everyone’s business”, this has never been more apparent than it is now. As we begin to take stock of this strange new landscape and implement recovery plans, keeping mental health front and centre will be a key piece of the jigsaw for building back better in our schools.
More information on Place2Be: firstname.lastname@example.org
i Respondents undertook an online survey before beginning the ‘Mental Health Champions – Foundation programme’. Responses were gathered between 31 March – 12 July 2020, with data based on the responses of 439 teachers and school staff in Scotland.
[i] Sample of 439 teachers participating in Place2Be’s pilot Mental Health Champions – Foundation Programme [May 2020]