March 2021 saw several milestones in our journey with the Covid-19 pandemic, as schools in England welcomed all pupils back to the classroom for the second time.
We also marked the one-year anniversary since the first national lockdown and school closures, events which brought huge challenge and uncertainty for families up and down the country. For the youngest children in our society, and those with additional needs, this period of disruption to routines and environments has been particularly challenging.
Research from the University of Oxford showed that, over a one month period during lockdown, parents and carers of children aged four-10 years old saw their child experiencing increased feelings of worry, restlessness and unhappiness. Furthermore, 45 per cent of parents reported their primary-aged children were ‘a lot’ or ‘extremely’ worried about their friends or family catching Covid-19 according to this State of the Nation 2020 report.
In these first few months the priority must be helping all children re-adjust once more to being back in schools. This means considering not only those children returning, but also the impact on those vulnerable learners and children of key workers who have been attending in smaller ratios during lockdown, and will now be adjusting to normal class sizes. It is crucial that we encourage pupils to talk about their mental health and wellbeing and equip them with the emotional resilience skills to help them grow into happy, healthy and confident adults.
Approaching mental health and wellbeing in the classroom
Educating primary children about good mental health practice is always important, but it is even more pressing in the current context of Covid-19. I believe that mental health is a key factor in a child’s overall wellbeing, learning and achievement, however getting young learners to engage with this complex subject matter can be difficult. When they are very young it is natural for emotions to simply come out, but as they get a little older, for many children, opening up and talking about their feelings and emotions is a nerve-wracking experience. It is for this reason that it is so important that we are sharing the best strategies to help them communicate their emotions and be more resilient and mentally healthy.
As many teachers will agree, schools should be preparing children with life-long knowledge and skills to face the tests of life, not a life of tests. Still, there is work to be done in changing the outlook around what mental health and wellbeing education looks like in the classroom. For example, we believe that physical wellbeing should not be restricted to PE lessons, just as mental health awareness should not be confined to PHSE lessons. Instead, it is about making physical and mental wellbeing a part of the whole school day. Embedding those opportunities for pupils to develop their self-esteem and learn how to cope with changes and stress, as well as increasing awareness around where children can go to for support, will help combat the stigma that unfortunately exists around mental health issues.
HAPPY child is a learning child
Like many schools, at LEO Academy Trust we sought to make mental health awareness an integral part of our teaching and learning, which is why we developed our own Pupil Wellbeing Strategy, HAPPY:
H – holistic support
A – aspirations
P – physical wellbeing
P – positivity
Y – ‘You’ matter
These five key themes promote self-awareness, development of life skills and an understanding of one’s own strengths and aspirations for the future. In doing so, pupils are also developing their empathy and understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings, which are all important qualities for becoming active citizens in a global community. To kick off the HAPPY wellbeing strategy, we dedicated one day of the week to exploring each of the HAPPY themes, to help both staff and pupils get to grips with talking and learning about positive mental health but more specifically what this meant in our schools. Here are some practical ways that we introduced the strategy into the classroom:
Developing a positive mindset through art and mindfulness: Emotional literacy, which promotes talking about emotions and understanding how they can make their voice heard to influence change, is one of the best life skills we can help children develop. While we know it can be challenging for some children to open up, creative arts and crafts projects that get children making something with their hands can be a great way to encourage more self-expression. We started by choosing a theme relating to positive mental wellbeing, for example Hope and Happiness, and asked pupils to create a piece of A4 artwork expressing what the theme means to them. Afterwards, you can ask pupils to share what they have created and create a class discussion around the topic and discuss ways to overcome challenges relating to those themes. Schools might also want to consider implementing more fun games and activities, such as class yoga team sports, nurture interventions, daily feelings check ins and mindfulness to promote physical and social literacy skills.
Building aspirations: As primary school teachers, we can help set pupils up for success in whatever they decide to do in life, through instilling within them a positive self-belief and confidence in their future aspirations. Building aspirations at an early age in a child’s education journey is critical for dispelling any myths and stereotypes around what workers in certain industries should ‘look’ like, before they can take root.
New research from Education and Employers has highlighted the benefits of introducing career-related learning early on in a child’s education, with 82 per cent of children involved in the pilot career learning programme developing a better understanding of how Maths/English/Science can be useful in many jobs, and 84 per cent of children understanding that boys and girls can do the same job. One lesson activity that teachers might want to explore is asking pupils to think about who they would like to be when they grow up, and then asking them to write a letter to their future selves, based on their aspirations. This is an effective way to get children excited and positive when talking about the future and what they can achieve.
Encouraging pupils to celebrate being themselves: The theme of ‘You Matter’ is another important part of our Pupil Wellbeing Strategy, as it asks children to not only celebrate themselves and know that their voice and opinions are valuable, but also to understand and value the differences between themselves and others. One approach that worked well in our schools involved planning circle time where children got to share something about themselves that they wanted their peers to know. For example, some pupils delivered poems, songs and slideshows sharing stories and facts about themselves that their class/ teachers didn’t already know. We have also focused heavily on providing opportunities for pupils to get involved with local volunteering opportunities which is also brilliant for developing their citizenship skills and broadening their outlook on different life experiences. Building relationships with their community is key in our opinion.
We’re all hoping for a return to some normality and stability in the coming months, and as we look ahead to a brighter future, helping this generation of children to develop the life skills to look after their mental health and wellbeing will be critical for their success in adulthood. While we began developing the HAPPY wellbeing strategy prior to the pandemic, reflecting on Covid-19 has enabled us, like many schools, to realise that a more planned approach to mental health will provide pupils with the essential skills and attitudes necessary to cope with an uncertain world. This is especially important during the current stage of the pandemic when children might be feeling more anxious and worried than usual.
How to promote positive mental health
First: Know your children
- Complete pupil wellbeing surveys with all of your children to establish the baseline for building any strategy.
Next: Use the experts and research, but make it your own ( see point number 1)
- There is a wealth of high quality advice and resources out there but these are only useful if they are relevant to your children. Simply having an ‘add on’ wellbeing strategy will help but will not help children be the best version of themselves.
Finally: Decongest your curriculum
- For years we have struggled with a congested curriculum. It is time to focus on what is important and ensure that supporting emotional literacy is weaved through all teaching. Without a wellbeing curriculum, It’s like wrapping a pass the parcel without the present in the middle, it’s fragile and just collapses!
- And above all else, ensure your children know “It’s okay, not be okay”, this is the greatest thing you can teach them.
Emma Dallimore, Associate principal of Inclusion, wellbeing and safeguarding at LEO Academy Trust