Going for growth

In schools and homes – an outline recovery plan as we set out on the road to release.

Will the lockdown release be more challenging than the crisis?
Potentially yes. Professor Neil Greenberg of the Royal College of Psychiatrists outlined this in his report, ‘Going for Growth’ An outline NHS staff recovery plan post COVID-19 on May 7th. It’s worth a peek…

Whilst his report centres on the frontline NHS staff, it also applies to teachers who have also been under intense pressure and also required to take front-line risks. He says that ‘the most predictive risk factors for the onset of post traumatic mental ill-health are those which operate after the traumatic incident is over’. The main pressures he highlights are:

  1. Access to effective social support
  2. The pressure people experience as they try to recover…
    I would argue that his thoughts in this report are also relevant when it comes to children and the way lockdown has impacted on their access to that key aspect of their wellbeing: the varied social supports they once had have fallen away. Many young people see the pressure on their parents, the risks to elderly and vulnerable relatives, and suppress their own fears and anxieties. Many children of key workers, or working parents, or single working parents, have now, for many months, had to hold it together largely by themselves.

Many thanks to those of you who wrote in with your thoughts about priorities and thoughts about where you feel you’re at now with teaching and parenting challenges – and priorities that are coming to the fore as we move forward. Of the many moving topics that came up, I am going to start with thinking about the territory lying ahead where mental health is concerned. I want to use this space to think about what we (parents, teachers, school leaders) can do to make post-traumatic growth more likely (which is the ‘normal’ response to trauma – as opposed to the more famous post-traumatic stress disorder). And do so whilst there is time to contribute to the debates and planning that will be ongoing in schools.
So it is highly likely that it will be in the release of the grip of the COVID crisis, that we will see mental health issues rise. In general it is a norm for people to cope when in a traumatic situation, but it is in the aftermath that the more vulnerable response to the trauma emerges. And so to those of you who felt that things are far from over – and maybe further challenges will come are probably right. 
Working with some 15 Designated Safeguarding Leads earlier this week, this was certainly their prediction. As has been the case nationally, it has been a challenge for therapeutic work to continue remotely (Doing Remote Systemic Psychotherapy during Covid 19 – Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust Blog). It has been even harder for connection and trust to be secured when starting a therapeutic alliance virtually. For some, it’s a facilitator. For many, an inhibitor. Being unable to accurately see how your thoughts are landing in the other person’s eyes, face, body language, can lead to too many mis-steps and uncertainties for a tentative young person trying to open up. Therefore many appointments with school counsellors have dropped away.

Teens especially are not necessarily in the vein of using their phones for sustained conversation. It is hard for young people in the current situation to speak their true thoughts and fears by phone or Zoom / Teams etc when they are cheek-by-jowl with siblings and parents. And where their mental health problems are linked to tensions in their relationships at home, that makes the privacy issue even more sensitive. Zoom calls tether you to the WiFi – and finding a quiet space outdoors for a 30 minute+ session is a logistical problem to which the challenge of hypervigilance around not being over-heard or not wanting to show emotion in a public space is an interference. So it isn’t surprising that the much-needed, and hard fought-for talking therapies have been hit-and-miss.
So children and teens have more fraught and restricted access to specialist help. Their access to their teachers – who are other trusted adults they can and do turn to as a resource – are not available to them – other than via email. And writing your question or unveiling your thoughts and worried in that format feels formal, official and too easy to share or misinterpret. So the antennae that great schools normally have is not available in order to proactively have conversations that matter with young people. And things may have gone much quieter on the safeguarding front. What are we looking for when we are thinking about great schools for our kids? – Listening environments where skilful and attuned teachers are able to to spot when a chid’s behaviour is too different, or some of their feelings and reactions are too intense, for too long – where relationships are good, and adults notice and act sensitively on their concerns to help young people open up about their anxieties. 
Children and teens have also lost their supportive network in each other. Increasingly, as they mature, friends become an important and powerful resource when times are hard. They also are able to notice when those they care about are too different for too long, and sometimes make referrals to teachers at the school. Many concerns about the onset of eating disorders, self harm, emerge this way. 

What are protective factors around this? How can we buffer ourselves, our families, our pupils from the expressions of anxiety that are perhaps being contained right now but may emerge later as the return to ‘normality’ and access to more structured help comes on-stream?
So what does Prof Neil Greenberg say the NHS should do to ‘go for growth’?
The advice he gives that seems most readily transferable to school and family environments is what I base the following points on:

  1. Form a robust recovery plan – and deliver on it. No false promises of support or time to readjust. this may contribute to persecutory narratives about ill-treatment, unfairness and disengagement both in employees as well as children. This also goes for families. Make holiday plans for recovery ‘golden time’ and stick to them. What narratives do you all want to take away from this period? How can you ensure that the end of this academic year in all its strangeness for your children is framed in as healthy, positive, hopeful, and appreciative way as possible? 
  2. Those who have worked long hours in arduous circumstances need sufficient time to ‘reset’ and reconnect with family. Therefore schools should invest in their staff by being clear about a sacred space during the summer break and be clear about what additional time might be needed for training and readjustments in order to resume in September. Families should also consider ways in which the summer holidays can be paced to allow for enriched connection and de-stressing.
  3. Think about the UK military model of post operational stress management – staged returns to duty consisting of time to informally mix with colleagues and then have a gradual reintegration to normal duties. How might this concept be creatively applied given social distancing imperatives, both for staff and pupils? How can families facilitate a carefully managed enlargement of the social sphere of locked-down children so that their actions on return to group life are neither risk-averse or reckless?
  4. ‘The overall aim of the Going for Growth plan is the rebuilding of healthier organisations and teams.’ What is the learning from this period about valuing team-work, togetherness, and community life? What are the discoveries of lockdown that you want to retain and build into an improved vision of a return – rather than just stepping back onto the hamster wheel of yesteryear?
  5. Mental health and wellbeing information should be proactively shared by organisations. This link below is an excellent exemplar from the NSPCC.
  6. ‘Workplace supervisors should carry out a structured return to post-COVID-19 work interview’. This has been a significant break from work. If an employee or student had been away for a far shorter period of time, a return interview would be part of the process. What opportunities could be made to replicate this? In the haste to ‘get back to normal’ and deliver the curriculum, to what extent might institutions be trying to run before they can walk? How might such contact, and the harnessing of the learning of such an individualised approach be really powerful in enabling teachers and pupils to have the right support, the right thinking in place to help them move forward further and faster – or slower as their needs may well be? Prof Greenwood advises a structured template for these conversations – but not a tick-box approach. ‘All interviewed staff who appear to be distressed should be collaboratively helped to make an individualised recovery plan. This may include workplace adjustments, flexible working, or indeed referral to mental health services…’
  7. ‘Staff should be written to again three and 12 months post completing their COVID-19 work and be given information about how they can check their own mental health.’ Thank you Professor Greenberg. This is not going to be a one-and-you’re-done conversation.
  8. Take into account higher risk groups…To what extent do schools really know who these are -or are keeping track of this important aspect of the backdrop for teachers and pupils and their capacity to perform, and learn.
  9. Ask about secondary stressors – a check-in with parents may help with this. Secondary stressors may be problems with relationships, financial problems, educational difficulties experiences within the family, significant other illnesses or mental health issues which have been contained and deferred during the lockdown period and when access to other services have been restricted. Whilst schools cannot solve these problems, an understanding about the family context increases the capacity for a sensitive and nuanced response to the returning child and future communications with the family. Parents should consider being communicative with the school about secondary stressors to ensure really good teamwork and observation of their child and how they are showing up in this important transitional phase. 
  10. Hold structured group discussions based on Schwartz rounds – a long-established way of reducing stress, dialling up social support and understanding – and providing a non-judgmental forum to reflect on the emotional and social aspects of working in health-care. These formed one of the platforms of my Psychoanalytic Observation training – the ‘Work Discussion Group’ – and is a strategy I have brought to schools as a trainer – and in working with teams who have been subject to particularly challenging circumstances. 
  11. Time for reflection – during the intensity of crisis working and schooling, there is only limited time to reflect on the reality of the challenge and the work done. ‘There is very good evidence that people who can develop a meaningful narrative of their experiences are less likely to develop mental health injuries such as moral injuries or associated mental health problems such as depression or PTSD.’ How can families and schools help teachers and young people alike develop a narrative around this experience – to extract meaning from it and inform a sense of purpose going forward? Lockdown journals, journals of appreciation and savouring, such as Seligman’s ‘3 Good Things’ process (Authentic Happiness) are great starting points right now. Without a doubt, returning to school, enabling these narratives to be formed, processed and shared will be very powerful. Ensuring that there can be some coherence to these narratives is important. Expressive writing is a very powerful tool to declutter the mind.
    Conclusion: access to effective social support is crucial. What range of both group and individualised support can be put in place by schools – and also within families – to help promote post traumatic growth?

How can schools & teachers do to help prepare for the return and minimise the post-crisis risks? Some thoughts…
Seek first to understand…
Following on from surveys to help gauge the effectiveness of virtual schooling, aim to survey students about their thoughts, feelings and fears about the return to pick up on trends so that information to the pupils can be nuanced to their FAQs. Consult about likely areas of concern: 

  1. Feelings, thoughts and fears about the logistics of return from a health and safety perspective (including their feelings about social distancing in school). 
  2. Feelings, learnings, and fears about academic progress / academic reintegration. 3. Feelings, learnings and fears about friendships and peer-group life. 
  3. Feelings about navigating a separation from their home-life.
     – How might such information help the impact of end-of-year briefings?
     – How might such information help prepare the pastoral strategy for the re-     integration process?
     – How might such information help prepare the curricular strategy for re-integration and targeting interventions?
     – What else might be good to know? 
    The power of the personal touch – to help navigate endings and beginnings. 
    Try to aim for some meaningful and personalised pastoral connection before the end of the summer term. Remembering how fragmented the Summer term usually is with outings, trips etc, what about integrating some strategic slack time to facilitate some conversations? How might staff time be freed up to facilitate some scaffolded phone calls to individuals so that there can be some personal re-connection with the institution. This will have the potential for each child to have the chance to be heard, and to make a connection – perhaps with their old form tutor or new form tutor. There is some merit in being able to say ‘goodbye’ to this extraordinary year that has passed. And a personal check-in can be really helpful. 
    The significance of endings
    Think about ways in which as a community you can all say goodbye to this academic year. Rituals are very important parts of community life and help mark transitions in often quite helpful ways. What rites of passage can be replicated and celebrated digitally to enhance a sense of community, appreciation, achievement? How we leave one school, job, relationship, impacts hugely on how we start the next. How would you like them to feel at the end of this year? What can be done to help promote and support them having access to those feelings?
    The absence of fun and variety
    Are you seeing a plunge in engagement? How does this last half term feel? Robbed of the variety and excitement Summer terms usually provide? What creative highlights can change the pace and boost morale? How can persecutory narratives around these absences be reframed – by schools and by families? Especially important to those leaving school at Year 6, Year 11 and Year 13.
    The landscape of the school environment
    COVID warnings have become part of our landscape. Are there ways in which we can  make the distancing / hand washing reminders fresher, more impactful, child and teen-friendly? Returning to a familiar landscape that is rigged up like a chemical accident has taken place could be quite difficult. A place of safety, an idealised and much missed refuge, transformed into a place of threatening restriction…Is there scope for engaging the creativity of the pupils to design and create bespoke signage, ‘public health’ style films? So that the restrictions and the reminders can be more student led, student owned and worn more lightly? 
    Groupings – changes and transitions…
    How to avoid layering on extra uncertainties to the already uncertain situation about the nature of the return. Being re-allocated a class is already a point of anxiety. Where can you go for strategic continuities in classes and groupings? Where change needs to happen, what dialogue and information sharing can minimise the anxiety of class allocations.
    Help promote meaningful connections and reconnections between students. 
    What these might look like…often we are advising about what doesn’t work – especially where screen time is concerned… Sharing & celebrating peak experiences and good practice surrounding what has worked in the virtual space, during the separation phase, and in social distancing? How can we help them make the best of this remaining time to reconnect with each other. If lockdown rules are released further, face to face meet-ups are still likely to be rare in the rush to visit relatives, have holidays etc…so the virtual space is still important. 
    Helping frame expectations about what a return to real group-life might be like. The notion that many things will have changed during the separation – how to have hopeful and realistic expectations around returning and resuming friendships? How might they direct their mindset towards this and set themselves up for success. I recently ran a session for KS3 on this very topic during Mental Health Awareness week.

School Leaders:
I am taking bookings for numerous webinars that are directed at ‘Going for Growth’ – and can be shaped for supporting pupils, parents and teachers:

  1. How to down-regulate from worry and anxious states.
  2. Friendship and peer-group life. Making the best of lockdown, building a readiness to return.
  3. Popular vs likeable – the power of likeability, and the pitfalls of status-driven behaviour.
  4. How to work with worry and release yourself from rumination.
  5. Setting yourself up for success in September.
    Clearly many of these are aimed at pre-summer break interventions. I still have limited capacity this term, and am taking bookings for next academic year.

I hope this has provided some helpful food for thought around the next phase of the COVID-19 situation. Please send in your feedback and any questions. Although this edition has in the main centred on schools- there are many aspects for parents here to consider what they can do to replicate or innovate around certain initiatives in the home.
As always, I strive to provide timely and relevant advice. It as always valuable for me to hear from you about what challenges and questions you’d like some input on – so please get in touch. 
I am also providing coaching support to families and teachers on a more individual basis. If you would like some 1:1 support, or think it would help your teenager – get in touch. I will be offering limited coaching spots at a discounted rate over the summer vacation.
With love and gratitude,
For parents, carers, and professionals – the NSPCC’s very effective hub for resourceshttps://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/coronavirus-advice-suppport-children-families-parents/For teachers:https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/safeguarding-child-protection/coronavirus/For children and young people:https://www.childline.org.uk/

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