Post Covid-19 Mental Health a key concern for school staff

3rd July 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic will be seen as the defining issue for a generation.  As we come out of ‘lockdown’ and move toward full reopening, there is an anticipation that schools across the country will be facing a deluge of related mental health issues affecting students and staff such as we’ve never seen before.

The fourth Schools North East Healthy MindED Conference attracted over 1,200 practitioners from every corner of the North East highlighting how important the topic is for schools as they plan to extend their opening. Due to the lockdown, the event was held virtually across two days, allowing us to connect with more school staff and to engage in great conversations around how to approach these issues.

A focus on mental health and wellbeing will be crucial in the recovery as schools open to all children in September, and so this added online reach to a variety of school staff is essential in promoting whole school approaches to mental health.

The conference featured expert speakers, practical sessions, debates, and panels, all aimed at helping schools to deal practically with the myriad of issues that they may face, now and over the next few months as they begin the recovery from the impact of the Covid lockdown. The four main strands explored were behaviour, trauma, staff wellbeing, and the recovery curriculum.

Day 1

Following an introduction to the conference from Schools North East’s Director, Chris Zarraga, we began the day with a panel session. This was chaired by SNE Trustee and CEO of SMART Academy Trust, Colin Lofthouse. He was joined by Peter Mulholland, Senior Educational Psychologist at Durham County Council, Richard Parker, an Educational Psychologist at Newcastle University, Adele Brown, Deputy Head at River Tyne Academy in Gateshead, and Margaret Doyle from Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust.

Colin began the session by posing the question, will the Covid-19 crisis have a lasting detrimental impact on children’s mental health and well-being for the rest of their lives? While panelists recognised there would be challenges in September, they were agreed that provided the right support and interventions were put in place, these challenges could be addressed in the short term, and that any educational ‘catch-up’ would only be possible where mental health is built into the curriculum.

The panel then went on to discuss the wider questions about what children will need, highlighting the need for children to feel safe, that relationships will be essential for this, and the need to manage the messages we give to young people about ‘catching up and lost time’. They then went on to answer questions posed by delegates.

Colin Lofthouse said: ‘What is clear from the panels unanimous views is that the mental health and well-being of children and young people should be at the forefront, not an after thought, for schools planning for the successful return of pupils to school. Leaders should take confidence that all experts agreed that this is of primary importance to ensuring we limit the long-term lasting effects of the Covid crisis. It is the pre-requisite for good learning.’

Unfortunately, as the plans for September were released the next day, it became apparent that this thinking was not reflected in the guidance which placed emphasis on academic curriculum and the reintroduction of accountability measures.

After the panel session Nicola Morgan, international educational consultant, teacher and author, spoke to the conference about practical strategies around behaviour. She began by asking us to consider ‘why?’ when confronted with an issue with behaviour, highlighting the need to ‘connect before you correct’. She also noted the importance of staff wellbeing, encouraging school staff to ‘invite children into our calm, don’t join them in their chaos’.

Sam Hart, Director of Teach Strong, followed up on this with a session on ‘Effective Well-being Strategies for School Staff’. He said that effective wellbeing is evidence based and long-term, saying that staff should find a wellbeing strategy that is effective, plan to incorporate them into your routine, and to create a community to keep you accountable. Strategies could include nutrition, movement, meditation, sleep, and community. These were about making quick tweaks to routines to create sustained habits.

Day one finished with a session from Cait Cooper from the Anna Freud Centre, looking at the recovery curriculum and whole school approaches to mental health. While the mental health challenge in the UK is likely to be exacerbated by Covid-19, Cait Cooper argued that there is a great deal of resilience, and that this should be celebrated. She advised establishing a Mental Health Action Group to promote mental health and wellbeing across the whole school community. However, she noted that there would be no one approach, and that schools know their children best and should have confidence in bringing about a whole school approach.

Day 2

Day two began with a session from Stephanie Fenwick from River Tees Multi Academy Trust, speaking on positive behaviour support. Building on Nicola Morgan’s session the day before on behaviour and asking ‘why’, Stephanie Fenwick said that behaviour ‘always communicates a message’, and understanding this was key to knowing what a child needed. In developing a positive behaviour strategy, communication was the most important consideration, so that good behaviour could be reinforced rather than simply punishing bad behaviour.

Stephanie Fenwick was followed by Kadra Abdinasir from the Centre for Mental Health. She spoke about trauma informed schools, beginning by saying that ‘we all have mental health’, which sits on a spectrum from healthy to unwell. Her session looked at the relationship between trauma and challenging behaviour, and how bereavements, domestic abuse, and financial insecurities caused by the coronavirus lockdown may exacerbate trauma.

David Bailey from Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust then spoke to us about the recovery curriculum. He looked at practical strategies for remote learning including thinking about making your materials accessible, peer learning and access to tech. He emphasised the importance of preparation whatever the situation may be in September, as even if schools do open up to all children, there will always be a proportion of children not regularly attending school. He said in a recovery curriculum teacher-student relationships are essential, and it is important to begin thinking about those relationships, balancing care with expectations.

Tracey Palmer from our event sponsor, North Yorkshire Education Services, followed giving a taster of what services they offer schools, looking at stress and providing a short demonstration of meditation practices.

Day two and the conference was finished with a session from Emma Kell, teacher, researcher, speaker and author. This was an uplifting session on the important work teaching staff do. She asked delegates why they went into the profession, noting that there are three main intersecting reasons people go into teaching: to make a positive difference, to right wrongs they may have experienced as a child, and a passion for a subject or working with young people. As she noted, no teacher ‘comes to work to do a bad job’, and this can lead to perfectionism with many risking pouring themselves too much into their work. She asked, ‘what can we bring to the classroom if we are completely worn out?’ With this in mind, Emma Kell made it clear that staff wellbeing wasn’t simply a box ticking exercise, but goes to the fabric of the teaching profession.

As well as these live sessions, there are a  further 18 pre-recorded sessions from regional and national practitioners and experts, covering our four main strands of trauma, behaviour, staff wellbeing, and the recovery curriculum, as well as other issues around mental health. We will shortly be releasing details of the extended Healthy MindED programme which will provide even more support for schools going forward.