The return to school and mental health

Olivera Raraty, headmistress of Malvern St James Girls’ School, discusses the psychological impact of lockdown on children returning to school

As schools reopened in September and we cautiously welcomed back children and staff, I’m sure that, as a head, I was not alone in anticipating the repercussions of lockdown. Some we had prepared for, some would take us by surprise and some would take time to emerge. We were aware that we would have to reassure children, staff and parents that school was still the familiar, harmonious and positive community in which they could all be confident.

Just as teachers had to quickly set up systems for remote teaching to replace physical classrooms when the closure of schools was imposed, so we had now to think about the psychological impact of lockdown on the returning children. How their behaviour might have changed, how their attitudes to learning might have altered, and how their reaction to being reunited with friends and teachers might be uncertain.

The isolation of two lockdowns certainly dented the confidence of many pupils. I think the second one was worse, coming as it did in the dark winter months when it was less easy to venture outside. Most schools will have seen an increase in friction, not only among their students but also among adults in their community.

Did any of us ever think we would be forced to live in bubbles like people in a Huxley dystopia? What a relief that bubbles – a babyish-sounding word for a significant social restriction – have now ended. But if cases rise in the autumn they could come back. Operating in bubbles was a strange and fragmented way to relearn how to communicate face to face. A half-life that did not work well in a school. Or any community.

Most schools will have continued their pastoral care online but we know the shortcomings of this. The shift to online conversations has prevented the normal reading of facial expressions, body language and social cues. This has made it hard for young people to develop effective skills when responding to friendship challenges. The perils of online chat forums on social media platforms are well documented but when this becomes the chief medium of communication for the young, the danger becomes greater.

So, on our students’ return, many of us working in schools saw friction in friendships; we noticed younger children having forgotten how to share, and being more demanding of time and attention. We also observed some pupils at the beginning of term uncomfortable eating together. We have had to remind students about the boundaries they may have forgotten, re-educate them about taking a break from mobile devices.

The line between home and school had become blurred when the whole family was working at home online. For most schools, this represented a challenge when returning to a structured way of community living and working.

Did any of us ever think we would be forced to live in bubbles like people in a Huxley dystopia? What a relief that bubbles – a babyish-sounding word for a significant social restriction – have now ended

Certainly, pupils’ personal and emotional development has been affected. The transition from years 6 and 7 to senior school, and for pupils in years 8 and 9 experiencing the onset of adolescence, has been made much harder. Making new friendships is normal as children grow in confidence, develop their own identity and start to have a private life.

This has not been possible for this generation in quite the same way. We are seeing pupils of 13 and 14 emotionally younger than they might otherwise have been. We need to recognise this when considering the future educational demands that are made on them and to provide ongoing support for their mental health and wellbeing.

Lockdown was also hard for only children, for those with disabilities and for those who were further isolated by living in rural areas or with weak internet access. On return, all of these issues have needed time, care and patience from teachers. And parents? They lost confidence too.

They had become used to being at home with their children, supporting their growing independence in tandem with schools. My own school’s parents are wonderfully supportive and completely behind our online learning, but many understandably struggled to relinquish their day-to-day involvement in their children’s school lives and were anxious.

Return to school has been positive in many ways. In my own school, children have been eager to dive back in. They feel they have missed out and want to make up for it. They have relished the return to routine, and have been keen to engage in outdoor education, to test their resilience and confidence. Many of them have liked the advances they have made with online learning and the greater academic independence it has encouraged, and have shown a willingness to try new approaches to learning.

But there is no doubt that Covid caused a significant rise in mental health problems, particularly in anxiety-related disorders. I think most schools witnessed an increase in pupils needing specialist support. We have just had World Mental Health Day. A reminder of the need for schools to maintain the focus on positive mental health strategies for staff and pupils, not just for one day but for every day.

My own school, which won the Gold Standard accreditation from the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, is keen to build on this. This term we have opened The Hive, a wellbeing space where pupils can drop in for relaxation and mindfulness courses as well as support from teachers trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Local education authorities were over-stretched even before Covid. Now, a child needs to be at immediate risk of harm to receive help from local mental health and social support services. A recent report from mental health charity Mind found that in June this year only 45% of children with mental health appointments had a face-to-face interview.

The return to community living has seen marked progress at all levels this term. A growing normalisation as we have come together again and frictions have eased. Let us hope that all of us who work in schools can serve this Covid generation well.

But it’s early days. We need the understanding of parents and the wider community as we steer our students through the new school year. Schools also need the support of government to fund the essential services in mental health and wellbeing on which, for the sake of our students, our hard-pressed pastoral teams must be able to rely.

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