Counselling by Nicola Stewart

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Being a mental health specialist and trainer is a varied and rewarding role.  Read my thoughts on current press, pace and progress regarding children's mental health and the support services available to families.

Supporting our school communities for reintegration and connection during COVID19

By Nicky Stewart, Jun 21 2020 09:20AM

Following Government guidance published on 15th June 2020 schools are currently planning to welcome more pupils back through the school gates. As a school counsellor I am very aware of how hard our teachers and school leaders have been working over the last 13 weeks since lockdown began. Schools have never actually closed, contrary to some public opinion. This subsequently means we have school staff who have not had a break in over 3 months; they have given up their evenings and weekends supporting their school community - whether that be reviewing continual policy changes, planning on-line lessons, running their key worker provision, delivering FSM vouchers, keeping children safe, calling parents, cleaning/rearranging classrooms...the list is endless.

Running at this pace on high alert for this long will have an impact. Addressing this emotional impact is important to understand how we will all move towards recovery. So HOW are we going to feel next week? Let's address the emotional impact here...

As school staff, we will no doubt be supporting our own return to school anxieties as well as those of our pupils and their parents. If you have been working at home on-line or shielding these past months you may be feeling very anxious yourselves about leaving the safety of your home bubble and returning to school site or workplace. It is important that we, as adults, can reflect on our own feelings. This will enable us to self-regulate before we can go on to offer to co-regulate with our colleagues and then in turn become the secure base our pupils will need. We are all aware our return will be to a very different school environment to the one we all left 13 weeks ago.

Here I will list some useful links and publications to support you in this return:

1. The British Psychological Society (BPS) has published a useful document 'Back to school: Using psychological perspectives to support re-engagement and recovery'. This document uses Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological theory of human development as a useful psychological framework through which to understand the influences of the interacting systems and contexts that surround children.

2. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) have published, 'COVID-19 - talking to children and families about returning to school: guiding principles' which offers signposting and support for your vulnerable children.

3. Anna Freud National Centre for Children & Families offer some excellent resources to support the different year groups: EYFS; Schools and Colleges plus AP.

4. Place2Be has put together a series of resources focused on community recovery, to help headteachers and school staff start to bring their schools back together; this includes assembly ideas and wellbeing activities for Primary and Secondary schools.

5. A return to school Support Plan for your SEND or vulnerable children can be useful in reconnecting and creating a sense of safety. Here is a great template from Headspace.

6. Fantastic resources here from @SchoolsNIc to help you adapt your environment to ensure it is communication friendly. These focus mainly on the use of visuals. a) Social distancing b) Returning to school c) Wearing masks

7. On the first day back try out this useful activity sheet (pictured below) to use with your pupils. Download this image from @TweetsbyBeth

Coming back to school
Coming back to school


Don't worry if your pupils express feelings of sadness or frustration - they don't need you to 'fix' anything - they may just need to express this. Being heard is often enough. Hold the feeling and reflect back:

'I see/hear you are feeling _________ right now and that is ok, thank you for sharing that with me'

'What helps when you have felt like that before?'

'What/who/how can help right now?'

Explore the ‘3 things I want to tell you' section

This can be a way of them connecting with you and expressing things they haven’t been able to at home during this period. Losses need to be acknowledged – we will all have a sense of loss from this period.

‘3 questions I’d like to ask you’ section

There may be common questions that arise and you can then address this as a class ‘circle time’. This shared experience can be very grounding and healing as the children hear that their questions are echoed by other classmates. We know children have felt a sense of isolation during this period so having a circle time to voice these individual questions can be really helpful.

‘3 things I am looking forward to’ section

This is all about hope – hope is so important in bouncing back from a time that may have been traumatic for some – share your 3 things with them too. We all need a sense of connection here. You have all been working so hard and supporting your pupils and own families no doubt – so take some time to explore your hopes too – tell each other – connection is what will help in our collective healing.

‘My favourite thing about being at home’

Everyone of us will take something away from this experience – being at home will have had positives for many – express those and share with one another. When we return we may feel a sense of loss from our home routine. It’s time now to think of this and plan for those changes in routines. Especially for those with young children and/or our pets at home – they will need a slow and gentle separation. Start now – begin to leave your dogs alone for a short time every day and build up to the return to work. With your children – prepare play dates in your bubbles – let them experience a gentle separation – check in with them after – how was that?

‘Something I have found tricky’

This can be a positive for the return to school as home working will have brought along its own challenges – use these responses as a positive platform for the return.

The shared responses to this worksheet can provide you and your pupils with a sense of shared emotions and normalise a feeling that may be experienced in isolation – once shared it gives the individual a sense they are not alone – connection in our shared experiences.

If you are supporting children with any return to school anxieties it can be helpful to explore 'Circles of control' (link to download a PDF copy here) Anxiety can be driven by the orange circle pictured here below, but if you invite them to focus on the green circle it may help in reducing their anxiety.

After the enforced long extended break from school due to the COVID 19 pandemic we will need to spend time managing the rupture to our school relationships. This disruption in relationships can be damaging for some and this is based around the theory of attachment. 'Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space'. (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). Read more around this theory and the pastoral considerations for this here.

Bounce Forward hosted a discussion panel with experts in resilience and wellbeing where they discussed how we have an opportunity post COVID-19, to allow our children to grow from the experience and be remembered as the generation who grew from the pandemic, richer, stronger, nicer human beings.

The concept of resilience is an ability to bounce back from adversity. This is something those of us working in education will have a responsibility to support our pupils with. Our history teaches us that we are resilient and adaptive beings. Reflecting on past experiences of trauma, recovery and growth in history enables us all to have a feeling of hope. I like to use metaphor with children - the safety of story and metaphor gives us scope to hear our own stories within this narrative.

Whilst I was out walking yesterday I came across this tree pictured above. I stood for a moment, paused and reflected on the trauma this tree must have experienced during a particularly bad storm. It was completed uprooted, ripped out of the ground and laying on its side.

Walking around to the fallen trunk I was shocked to see it was in full leaf! It is growing, flourishing even. This tree has adapted - it used its roots - connection to earth and survived the storm. Just like we will - CONNECTIONS matter right now - remember that there will be no quick fix for recovery - it will be repairing and nurturing our connections right now.

The most important focus for your first day back in a room with your pupils will be your relationship. You are their connection - you are the roots, the safety that connects them to their school. Focus on your connection to start with, this will be the first step in facilitating our COVID19 post traumatic growth.

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