There’s much concern about children being anxious about schools reopening and how their mental wellbeing may have been affected by Covid-19.

At the same time, there’s rhetoric around academic gaps and the pressure to catch up on learning. One thing I want to make clear is that by not prioritising wellbeing, much of the learning and catch-up that everyone is concerned about won’t be possible.

As we all know, children need to feel calm, safe and secure in order to learn to the best of their ability. Emotional wellbeing, recreating a sense of community and allowing relationships to rebuild have to be the primary concern now that schools have reopened.

Mental health – Getting it wrong

You might, understandably, feel worried about getting it wrong or making things worse when supporting pupils and discussing emotions.

Although the drive to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce stigma has been hugely impactful in recent years, you might be concerned about the use of medicalised language and apparent self-diagnosis.

Terms like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ may be used by pupils, parents and teachers when they’ve not necessarily been diagnosed. It’s not up to teachers to diagnose, but I’d always encourage conversations and curiosity. Ask questions such as:

  • Do you know what you’re worried about?
  • How long have you felt like this?
  • Have you had feelings like this before?
  • Has it affected your eating or sleeping patterns?

This mirrors how you’d respond to a physical health issue. If a child came to you with tummy ache, you’d ask where it hurt and how long it had been sore, for example. The very process of having conversation with a child will help both you and them to understand and process what they might be feeling and provide a safe space to talk.

While you won’t have all the answers and may be unable to fix the problem, validation such as “I can imagine that feels difficult” or “I can understand why you are upset about that” go a long way to show that we have truly listened.

It’s important to understand that not every intense or upsetting emotion is a sign of mental ill health. The last 12 months have been incredibly stressful and worrying for many people, so feeling worried, miserable or confused at times are all normal, appropriate and very human responses to the situation. 

In terms of understanding warning signs of a more persistent problem, when the cause of a worry (an impending exam, for example) disappears, then so should the heightened emotion.

Behaviour policies vs relationship policies

Behaviour is a form of communication. When faced with certain behaviours from pupils, try to explore what’s driving it and why. To this end, some schools have removed their behaviour policies and replaced them with ‘relationship policies’.

We know that what children have missed more than anything during this time has been significant relationships outside of their family setting. Rebuilding these external and often key influential relationships will be key to children feeling safe, confident and ready to learn again.

Anything we can do as teachers to support this will be incredibly valuable.

Making sure that your whole school community is involved in prioritising wellbeing is key. Every member of staff – SLT, teachers, TAs, lunchtime supervisors and office managers – should be given training and share the same approach.

There are many good online courses that all staff can access to increase their confidence in the support that they provide. Emotional and wellbeing education should be embedded across all aspects of school life to maintain an ethos of genuine compassion, understanding, listening and support.

Remember that there are many organisations out there that can support you and your school on this. It’s easy to think that CAMHS is the only resource, but that’s not true.

Find out what other organisations and services are available in your area. It might be a good idea to signpost these on your website, so both pupils and parents can also have access to good, reliable information too.

Sarah Berman is part of the YoungMinds training consultancy team, delivering training on a range of mental health issues. View Tes EduCare’s online children’s mental health training course, developed in association with YoungMinds, here. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @sarahfrasber.