Return to school is going to come with a huge challenge - Jonathan Wood

In a piece originally published in The Scotsman, Jonathan Wood, Head of Service for Scotland East, writes about the impact that lockdown could have on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils and school staff.

Mother and child

As lockdown in its various iterations is relaxed and schools prepare for the new school year, parents, children, teaching staff, the networks of professionals and concerned others who are all involved with the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people are attempting to assess what is necessary for a safe and supportive return.

Many commentators are predicting that the fall-out from lockdown, for our youngest and most vulnerable, could be catastrophic. The Economist (July 2020) cites the World Bank which estimates that five months of school closures could cut the future earnings of affected children worldwide by $10 trillion.

Children who miss school learn less and lose the learning habit. Economically disadvantaged children have less access to online resources but education is known to be a clear route out of poverty. Families already struggling, lacking the support and structure of a school day, term or year, turn in on themselves, often with dire results.

It is also true that there are children who have thrived during lockdown. Some children do not flourish in large classrooms or large playgrounds. They find them overwhelming and struggle for individualised attention to meet their needs.

Whereas at home, with engaged and present parents, in a familiar environment, we have heard stories of growth in learning, improvements in behaviour and enhanced family relationships.

What is guaranteed is that the return to school for all children is going to come with huge challenges. Those whose time away has been traumatic will need a particular kind of attention – time to be listened to and have their stories heard – a proper therapeutic space in the school day.

Those who have lost the habit of learning, who may have lost their ability to concentrate will need a heightened sense of understanding and tolerance from teaching staff. And for those children who never really liked school in the first place, preferring their lockdown time at home, this return brings its own kind of trauma.

This is before we even get to counting the cost of Covid-19 on some of the families. No-one is immune from this aspect of the lockdown. What level of personal trauma or loss may teaching staff already be carrying when they return? All these aspects need to be considered as a whole.

We have heard some head teachers say that the academic aspects of the curriculum will be secondary when their schools return in August. The priority will be mental health and wellbeing. And this must surely include their own mental health and that of their staff.

A place of support for teaching staff – a reflective, supportive space that helps them not to overlay personal trauma with the impact of what the children bring in – seems essential in this matter. Trauma also acts like a virus. It spreads, if unchecked.

This return provides a challenge, but also an important opportunity. Much has been spoken about a trauma-informed approach in schools, understanding behaviours and difficulties in learning in relation to early negative experiences, and how that understanding might begin to re-shape teaching practice.

At this time, we have all – to some extent – been traumatised: by loss of loved ones, of jobs, of freedom of movement, of contact with friends, by fear, by illness. Reflecting on this experience – learning from it – is surely the principle behind being ‘trauma-informed’.

As a charity providing mental health services, Place2Be has offered support to parents and children and school staff throughout this lockdown. Much of this has been at a distance – on Zoom, on the telephone, on social media – and one of the biggest learnings for us is that there is a lot that can be done to mitigate isolation and lack of support during such a lockdown.

But we also recognise that perhaps the bigger challenge is just weeks away, and the larger part of that will be in ensuring that front-line staff – those who run the schools and teach our children – are not left alone to deal with what will inevitably be an outpouring – of grief, and maybe also of relief, when the return to school happens.

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