Managing pupil wellbeing in the pandemic
How has St Benedict's supported pupils' wellbeing during lockdown and in school over the last year? The Headmaster, Andrew Johnson, writes about the particular challenges Covid-19 has presented, and how he and his staff have tried to address them.
In the months since Covid-19 emerged as a global, life-changing force, schools have had to adapt rapidly to face the many challenges presented by the pandemic. Apart from ensuring that children’s education could continue remotely during lockdown, with the roll out of systems such as Microsoft Teams, schools have also had to find ways to provide support for their pupils’ wellbeing.
Uncertainty is the enemy of wellbeing and the most valuable thing we can give to young people at this profoundly challenging time is a sense of calm and reassurance. In helping them to cope with uncertainty and to adapt to change, there are two key messages: firstly, it helps to focus our energies on those things we can control, rather than fretting about what we can’t. Giving students clear advice on how to stay mentally and physically well is vital, encouraging them to establish healthy routines over lockdown, including regular exercise, sleep, mental stimulation and social connectedness.
Secondly, by supporting each other we will get through this; we have to support young people as they try to hold onto a sense of optimism, and to believe that there is a future; that they will be able to take their place in the world, putting their talents and education to good use, once we reach the other side of this crisis.
The uncertainty around public exams has added a further layer of anxiety for GCSE and A level students. Their cancellation last year left many feeling robbed of the rite of passage they had anticipated throughout most of their school years: all the revision and preparation for what may or may not appear on the exam paper, the accurate recall of facts, and having to give a coherent evaluation, argument and conclusion within a set time limit really teaches them about what they can achieve if they try. This year, the situation is also unclear, with announcements of cancellation followed by plans to run some of the exams, which will be marked internally and moderated externally.
The challenge for schools amid all this confusion – which can be so destabilising - is to steady the ship by continue to encourage students to strive hard in their learning and to preserve as much of the ‘normal’ process as possible, with regular assessments and feedback, and rigorous mock exams. Cultivating a growth mindset will also help students to stay motivated by looking towards their personal goals and striving to achieve them. In the end, students need to feel that they have earned their grades rather than merely received them.
Keeping things running as normally as possible, with weekly online assemblies, daily form time and a continuing co-curricular programme, certainly helps everyone to stay positive and resilient. Music, drama, dance, sport, debates, house competitions and more, enable pupils to continue doing what they enjoy. Virtual concerts, plays and dance shows motivate pupils to attain their best performances; house matches kept team spirit alive in the autumn when fixtures against other schools weren’t possible; and fund-raising activities turn our attention to those whose needs are very much greater than our own.
Pastoral care has to be particularly responsive in the face of heightened anxiety, tensions and uncertainty at home arising from a whole range of issues, and the tragic increase in family bereavements. At St Benedict’s, we have factored into the school week an extra form-time session for all year groups. This has proven invaluable, allowing students more time to talk through how they are doing, academically and socially. It also has the added benefit of enabling our form-tutors, Heads of Year, counsellors and PSHE coordinator to identify particular concerns, such as anxiety over shielding vulnerable family members at home.
Another vital layer of support is provided by our counselling service, skilled in listening, responding sensitively, helping students to find ways of coping with whatever they may be going through. To support this work, a number of Teacher Mentors have received extra training in mental health first-aid.
Lockdown is one thing, but what about returning to school? In September, children had to make the transition from home-learning and comparative isolation to being immersed in school life again. Having to adjust to the hurly-burly of school routines, and being in close proximity with their peers again, proved quite challenging for some, however much they had missed their friends.
To get the academic year off to a positive start we launched a mini ‘return to school’ course, helping everyone to reintegrate. It focused on building resilience in the face of change and included practical tips for dealing with anxiety and stress, building positive social relationships, and responding constructively to difficulties. Year-group ‘bubbles’ bonded through team-building activities, competitions and fund-raising. (Spending so much time together in bubbles makes social cohesion among each cohort all the more important.) Of course, after the present lockdown, we will help them readjust once again when they return, hopefully in mid-February.
‘Change is the only constant in life’. Heraclitus’ words seem to thunder through the skies in the face of all the plans and arrangements we have had to make, amend and cancel this year. If we can equip our students with the psychological and practical ability to cope with change, we will have taught them a great deal. The current generation of school children have arguably had more than their fair share of disruption and change: will it make them stronger, more resilient and adaptable in the future? Will they, like the rest of us, perhaps be less likely to take every-day freedoms for granted? Will they appreciate more keenly the inequalities in the world – made starker by Covid - in their own society and globally?
If the nightmare of Covid-19 has a silver lining, it is possibly that it has magnified the importance of
our mental wellbeing, underlined the need for resilience, and brought home to us our
interdependence, encouraging everyone to show care and consideration for other people’s wellbeing as well as their own.
Headmaster of St Benedict’s, Andrew Johnson