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Build a ‘can do’ culture – how make your school community feel safe, comfortable and secure

Ahead of students’ reintegration back into school, Sarah Wray explains why the focus for schools should be on building a safe and reassuring environment for all...

  • Build a ‘can do’ culture – how make your school community feel safe, comfortable and secure

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in the most unprecedented times that any of us can remember, following a complete transformation of our lives in just a matter of days. And none of us know what the long term impact of this will be.

At the time of writing, the plan is for all schools to fully reopen in September, but we have to be mindful that every member of staff and every student will have had different experiences, to which they will have reacted in their own way.

Many students may well have had enjoyable times over the past few months, experiencing quality family time like never before.

For others, it will have been a uniquely challenging time that might have involved struggles with mental ill health, physical illness, bereavement or any one of numerous other challenges within their family.

For these young people, specialist support may be needed.

By proactively considering such issues, and planning in the different elements you’ll need in order to build a safe emotional environment, you can avoid and alleviate many of the worries and anxieties that a number of students will be feeling.

Purpose and belonging

The physical and emotional safety of students and staff should be the priority. Feeling safe is a basic human need – when our safety needs aren’t met, our brains will be on high alert and negatively affect our functioning, often leading to feelings of being out of control.

Conversely, when we feel safe we’re able to think clearly, make better decisions and are more capable of fulfilling the expectations placed on us. 

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety and security form part of our basic human needs. Immediately above is the need for a sense of belonging, which is essential for functioning effectively and feeling well.

Feeling a sense of belonging and purpose gives us focus and direction, and reassures us that we have value.

Many students will have been given this sense of purpose and belonging by their school, and will likely have been struggling its sudden absence over recent months.

Reconnecting your students with their school lives and that sense of belonging is vital if they’re to feel emotionally safe and ready to re-engage with their learning.

Create warm and welcoming environments that help to build up sense of belonging. If you can, set aside time for embedding this belonging through planned group sessions within bubbles overseen by key members of staff.

Activities aimed at building a sense of teamwork and togetherness will enable students to feel a sense of attachment and help them reconnect with relationships – something that’s fundamental, following a prolonged period apart.

Focusing on building up values such as cooperation, teamwork, equality, fairness and trust will create a culture in which students can once again flourish. Regularly review the groups that students are in and consider how well these are working.

Setting expectations

The pandemic has made it impossible for students to see many of the most important people in their lives – friends, teachers, other trusted adults – which will have left a huge impact on their general wellbeing.

Consideration should be given to how specific interventions might be used, and how time and space can be allocated for students to reconnect with each other.

Where students have been placed in distinct ‘teaching bubbles’, they may need time to develop new friendship groups, reconnect with familiar members of staff or make new connections with staff they’re meeting for the first time.

Provide written information to all students before they return to school in September that clearly explains exactly what will be the same and what will be different, highlighting structures, routines and rules that will help them feel safe, while communicating your expectations and imparting a sense of control.

Help them to reconnect with the familiarity of school again.

Once the students are back, create safe areas where they can spend time if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Having spent an extended period of time outside the school environment, some students may experience sensory overload and find the number of people and levels of noise frightening and difficult to cope with.

OK to not be OK

Your students’ social and emotional needs will have to be met before they can start learning effectively again. Many will seem eager to get back to their familiar school routines, but make sure that these needs are addressed too.

Allow them time to regularly reset, and give them opportunities to express, process and articulate their experiences over lockdown. Try to plan in some activities each day that include creative, expressive and/or physical components.

Keep your expectations realistic. Many students will have likely spent months at home with comparatively far less or little structure to their days and will need time to readapt.

Remember that concentration levels can and will be affected by worry or anxiety. Organise regular ‘check-ins’ that will provide students with a safe space in which they can talk about any issues that are concerning them. Listen to what they say, acknowledge their feelings and be aware of your own reactions.

Those times when students are feeling calm and safe are good opportunities for helping them to maintain their wellbeing, build up their resilience and develop strategies they can draw on during more challenging moments.

These strategies could include mindfulness breathing techniques, spending time outside or simply listening to music – share those and other options with your students and let them discover which ones benefit them the most.

Above all, let your students know that it’s ‘okay not to be okay’. The support you offer should be readily available to all students, so make sure they know exactly what it consists of and how they can access it.

Counteract the negative

As humans, we have an innate bias towards the negative. When confronted with the unfamiliar, or situations in which we feel uneasy, we’ll naturally focus on the negative aspects as a way of watching for danger.

However, with appropriate modelling, it’s possible to build up considerable reserves of positivity and optimism so the point that these become infectious.

Building a ‘What went well?’ strategy into the daily school routine will enable everyone to recognise, savour and enjoy the positives of the present moment and contribute towards building a ‘can do’ culture.

At the end of each day, have each class group identify that things that ‘went well today’.

The students will leave school on a positive note, and can be encouraged to share that day’s observations with each other during following morning’s registration, thus helping to reinforce the sense that the day stretching out before them will be another positive one.

Whole school mental health

Staff wellbeing

It’s essential that all staff, including the headteacher, take time to prioritise their own wellbeing. Online wellbeing sessions can provide staff with appropriate strategies for looking after themselves and build their capacity for looking after the students in their care.

Wellbeing Team

At this time, there’s shouldn’t just be one member of staff who’s ‘in charge’ of mental health at your school. If you don’t already have one, you need to establish a ‘Wellbeing Team’ to co-ordinate your school’s mental health activities. This should include your mental health lead, SENCo and DSL, plus other key members of staff.

External Support

Draw up a list of external organisations and entities that can provide you with additional support as and when it’s needed. This might include agencies such CAMHS, local GP surgeries and your LA’s Early Help referral team.

You’ll likely find that there are a number of other local and national organisations that can provide your school and wider community with valuable support and information, such as the charity Winston’s Wish, which supports students and families experiencing bereavement.

Sarah Wray is a wellbeing specialist, founder of the Live Well Consultancy and a former primary headteacher; for more information, visit livewellconsultancy.org or follow @livewellSHF.

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