Following our Happy Schools Forums we look at three unique challenges schools face for their mental health and wellbeing strategies to succeed.
This first half-term back has been a challenging one across the board. Although schools had returned since April (albeit with many stops and starts to varying extents due to localised whole school and individual bubble closures), this is really the first term school leadership teams have been able to fully focus forward on future planning - with more time now available to focus on inclusion and SEN organisation due to lowered and more consistent Health England compliance needs and less attendance considerations across the U.K. due to this.
The summer holidays acted as time to consider where the focus should now lie and finally teachers have had enough breathing space to consider how they will fully address the effects of the pandemic on their pupils. I can’t properly approach this without taking a dual focus in firstly discussing the challenges schools face when it comes to implementing Mental Health and Wellness Strategies before secondly doing a deeper dive into some of the particular areas of this we have explored through our ‘Happy Schools Forums.’
Surviving school closures, the rise of remote learning and making it through the pandemic was always going to represent just the beginning of a longer task of reintegrating pupils and supporting them as they adapt back into school life. Many have faced dramatic upheavals in their lives (due to the socio-economic fallout surrounding the current situation we face as a country and other circumstances) and identifying where these represent Mental Health and Wellness issues will be a key triage point for practitioners.
Extra funding has been provided to schools to support in this procedure but the question remains where and how should this be used to best impact student’s lives and outcomes? What interventions and strategies should be used? How will we measure the effectiveness of these to evaluate if we are taking the right path? And the reality is that those, more nuanced decisions, have been left for local authorities, academy trusts and individual schools to tackle.
With this in mind, it would seem that schools face three unique challenges to overcome if their strategies to support Mental Health and Wellness are to succeed. Laid out explicitly these are:
To combat the confusion schools face under the pressure of an exponentially growing market of not just Mental Health and Wellness products, ideas and approaches - Book of Beasties have been running a series of what we call ‘Happy School Forums.’ The core principle of these is to provide a space where Education Practitioners can hear from neutral experts about particular forms of provision including what their work entails and then have the open space to ask question (either during the forum itself or afterwards by direct contact) to gain an initial taste around what these entail before they commit time and resources to taking the plunge into a new initiative.
So far Book of Beasties has run two of these sessions that have focused on three particular areas: autism provision; forest schools and trauma informed practice. Hosting these and hearing the questions and concerns across the spectrum of Education has shown how stark a need there is to find practical methodologies that provide impact whilst hearing the experiences of our subject experts has reflected the wealth of good practice ideas out there – and we have only just scratched the surface so far with many more such sessions in planning. It is clear to us that too much choice in this case may be the critical stumbling block and once a particular path has been chosen by a school ensuring the particular providers they choose can deliver is crucial.
To this end schools should be looking for a number of things; academic validation, sincere third-party endorsement and where possible the word-of-mouth recommendation of your fellow educators that I know I for one would have often sought out before considering implementation in the classroom during my practice. But as I have mentioned before even when you have chosen your path, we must not be apprehensive to evaluate and where choices have proven wrong have the confidence to reset the course.
With the process of choosing effective methods now defined, I am going to dive into some of the best practice and initial pointers we have seen raised through these sessions, but it should be pointed out that these will only act as my key take-aways from much more extensive conversations lead by our subject specialists.
As every child is unique and the needs of autistic children seldom follow any set pro forma maintaining this new found level of dialogue between home and school could make or break the ongoing transition back into school of autistic pupils.
The beginning of our discussions regarding autism provision post-pandemic very much started in more general terms by defining the biggest effect on pupils with an autism diagnosis from the pandemic and their return also. Throughout this particular discussion Trixie Harrison led the answering of questions using her expertise as a Specialist Autism Consultant and Trainer whilst Emily Edwards (our specialist on Forest Schools – discussed later) also supported these through her experience as the mother of a young person with Autism and ADHD.
It was initially pointed out very clearly that there have been two sets of outcomes for pupils due to the pandemic based on their personal experience of the learning environment at home and at school. Some pupils have thrived at home given this provided them with the environment that was setup to meet their specific needs from an environmental perspective allowing them to concentrate wholly on the learning provided rather than the barrage of other stimuli in a classroom environment whilst others have been damaged by the yo-yo effect of not having the consistent safe external environment school provides due to the non-defined timescale of the original closure and then the bubble system of closures that ensued afterwards.
An overall positive result though is that given the deeper knowledge parents have learned regarding their child and the higher expectations made necessary by balancing work, care etc. all at the same time in the home environment pupils with autism have often risen in their independence to meet these challenges they may not have otherwise faced at this particular stage of their development.
This means that although there will be a challenge in reintegrating children into school life their underlying self-management skills in many cases may have improved drastically allowing them to excel once the initial post-closure period is over and other interfering mechanisms in their school routines made necessary by tackling the pandemic are removed completely.
Beyond this, it was highlighted that there is a much more open discussion now in relation to difficulties faced between teachers and parents and even between the parent community itself. As every child is unique and the needs of autistic children seldom follow any set pro forma maintaining this new found level of dialogue between home and school could make or break the ongoing transition back into school of autistic pupils.
This discussion also went into more depth on best practice in regards to mental wellness when it comes to autism and this is a more in-depth subject area that I would definitely recommend watching.
Forest Schools is about the series of moments it creates for young people no matter how small or big those are that can become defining experiences in their education journey.
For our forum section on Forest Schools, I interviewed Emily Edwards (an independent forest school practitioner who delivers this form of learning mainly to pupils in alternative settings) focusing on how such an initiative can be used to improve the Mental Health and Wellness of pupils. Emily firstly summarised how to her, Forest Schools is about the series of moments it creates for young people no matter how small or big those are that can become defining experiences in their education journey.
The immediate advantage that comes to mind is how much many of us, even adults, have become normalised to being inside four walls due to the restriction we faced last year and Forest Schools is very much the countermeasure to that detachment from our natural environment and the negative effect this can have on Mental Health (in the past this may have been an area with need for further justification, but I would say the importance of even a short walk to clear our minds has made this a given for the majority of us since experiencing lockdown – and the research backs this with a range of health advantages).
Integrating Forest Schools on a level peg to the rest of the curriculum and not thinking of it as a stand-alone entity was identified as a key factor in success. Alongside this Emily made it clear that it should be thought of as an ethos then a method so that everyone can be involved across the school community with parents supporting it by discussing in the home the experiences their children have had and building on these in the family activities outside school. But to facilitate that schools need to provide information not only publicising through the various parent communication channels what their children have been up to but also explicitly informing them of the practical and emotional skills those activities were designed to build on so parents have the necessary scaffolding to achieve this.
As a first step Emily suggested the Forest School Association as a great place to start your journey to building the Forest School ethos into your wider curriculum and integrating this with your current overall learning map.
The first step in instilling this approach is to understand the definition of Trauma, which is not the event or events themselves that happen to a pupil but rather the imprint left behind
Where Trauma Informed Practice during my time in teaching was generally considered an individual student approach to be undertaken in particular circumstances it is clear through our forum with Kati Taunt (a consultant, trainer and therapist specialising in Trauma Informed Practice) this particular in light of COVID is being considered as a whole school approach to ensuring good practice with regards to pupil and staff interactions, where teachers should be ‘trauma informed’ to best deal with the reactions of children to the pandemic, attached issues and anything that might arise moving forward.
The first step in instilling this approach is to understand the definition of Trauma, which is not the event or events themselves that happen to a pupil but rather the imprint left behind on students by these and how it affects them as a young person. This effect can have long term consequences individual to each pupil that are characterised by fundamental changes in how they perceive their environment.
A school can aim to ensure Trauma Informed Practice by first conducting a thorough assessment of the school climate with regards to: inclusiveness; specific risk and protective factors for each individual that makes up the community; senior leadership ‘buy in’ and addressing skeptics as new trauma informed discipline policies will be enacted to ensure the best possible chance of success. The latter of these highlighted a particular focus of Kati Taunt’s discussion which reminded us that staff just as much as students should have their individual traumas considered to ensure the most effective working environment (to build a safe environment we should consider school staff first, followed by parents and carers so we can then best look after the children and young people).
So what do Trauma Informed approaches require from our thinking as practitioners?
From this, we then take the proactive approach across the school to meet young people’s needs from the adults around them to regulate and manage themselves independently.
Over the coming months we will continue to run these sessions focusing on a wider range of particular solutions to Mental Health and Wellness provision in schools. If you would like to keep informed on upcoming events please drop an email to our Head of Customer Success, Penelope at firstname.lastname@example.org; watch the recording of our past forums on our blog page or provide us with suggestions on what you would like to see from these sessions in the future by contacting me directly at email@example.com.
For further information contact Book of Beasties Ltd. at firstname.lastname@example.org