There has never been a more crucial time to embed well-being practices than now as schools reopen to all children.
As you plan for each stage of reintegrating children back into school, it is essential that you consider the implications for the well-being of the children, families, staff and yourself.
The physical and emotional safety of both staff and children is priority. Feeling safe is basic human need; when our safety needs are not met, our brain is on high alert and negatively affects our functioning; we often feel out of control. Feeling safe allows us to think clearly, make better decisions and be better at following the rules.
ESTABLISHING A NEW NORMAL
Working Together: These are unprecedented times, and no one has all the answers. Many things are out of our control. Working together as a staff team, whereas possible, in decision making and organization will build a sense of ownership and control to how you are responding to this situation, which in turn builds a sense of safety.
Clear Guidelines and Expectations: Establish clear guidelines and expectations for the ‘new normal’ routine. You may need to adapt this as it works through in practice, but it is important for everyone’s well-being that they know exactly what to expect and what is expected of them.
At each stage, clear communication to all stakeholders is essential. Knowing procedures and practices are securely in place will alleviate anxiety and worry and build a sense of safety and control.
Parents: Share the guidelines and expectations with parents before their child returns to school so they feel reassured that you have everyone’s safety as priority. Ask them to share these with their child so he/she already knows what will happen and can begin to understand what they are expected to do, which will also give them a sense of control and safety.
Additional Support: Encourage parents to share any relevant information regarding the child’s time at home, such as bereavements, illness, family challenges etc. to allow you to be as informed and prepared for the additional support a child may need when they reenter school.
WELCOMING THE CHILDREN
Staggered Starts: A number of children may be anxious about coming back to school and also about separating from their parents after an extended period of time with them. Ensure familiar members of staff are there to welcome them.
Physical: Work together as a staff team to decide how you can create a warm and welcoming environment which fosters a sense of belonging despite social distancing. Create safe areas where children can have time and space if they are feeling overwhelmed.
Emotional: Create an emotionally safe environment that nurtures, feels safe and focuses on rebuilding and reconnecting. Staff, children and their families will have all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions over the last few weeks; many will have experienced trauma of different kinds at differing levels; children will have absorbed any anxiety and upset in the home and may have experienced family challenges.
Reinforcing: Be very clear with the children about expectations around social distancing, hand washing etc. Talk with them about why you need to do; they need to be clear why the rules are there; discuss their ideas about how you can make it work so they feel they have some ownership and control over it. Model it yourself, scaffold it so they can successfully follow rules then praise them for doing this. Involve children in creating some of the rules and making pictures and posters to remind everyone of the rules, to give them a sense of control over their environment.
TAKE TIME TO RECONNECT
Meeting their Needs: Both children and staff will need to reconnect and reintegrate back into school. Do not be tempted to jump back into formal learning. Children have had no face-to-face interaction with their peers for weeks and have probably experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as anxiety, therefore priority needs to be given to children’s emotional and social needs based around creative, physical and play-based activities.
Framework: Plan the days around a framework that nurtures and support the children to build and grow again. When planning these, consider how the children will be feeling, what would make it feel better for them and what you can do to support that.
Working with Feelings*: Make time to talk. Listen to the children and acknowledge how they are feeling, being aware of your own reactions. Within age appropriate expectations, discuss what is happening and talk with the children about how this can bring a range of different feelings. Spend time when the children are calm and feel safe learning to identify feelings and positive ways of handling them to build their resilience and give them strategies to use during difficult moments.
Regular Resets: Build regular resets into the daily routines, moments where the children can proactively calm themselves. Try activities such as mindfulness breathing, going outside for some fresh air, or listening to music. The adult will need to facilitate and actively demonstrate how this is helping them and then follow up by talking to the children about what works for them.
Learning: Children will need to learn how to learn again in a school environment. It will take time for everyone to settle into the new routines and establish a sense of safety. Focus on the enjoyment of being together, have fun and do not put a time factor on academic learning – the social and emotional needs must be met before children will thrive and learn effectively.
Home Learning: Be conscious of the differences in the learning experiences children will have had at home. Some will have completed every piece of work, some will not have engaged at all and most will be somewhere in between. Reassure children that there will be plenty of time to catch up with learning. Reducing their anxiety about this will enable them to settle and be open to learning again.
Staff Support: These are very uncertain times and staff will be feeling a multitude of emotions as they prepare to welcome back more children. Stay connected and actively promote a culture of communication and openness more so than ever before. Be very clear about support systems that are in place for all staff. Ensure staff know that it is okay to not be okay – they can talk about it and seek support wherever needed.
Well-Being Sessions*: Consider some staff well-being sessions (these can be accessed online) to give staff strategies to support with areas which may be affecting them, such as sleep and anxiety, and promote self-care, such as yoga or mindfulness sessions. This is essential during these times for all staff, including the headteacher who will quite often look after others well-being and neglect their own.
Daily Gathering: Have a daily gathering, either before or after the children are there, to check in with each other, build the capacity of the team, share what is working and what may need adapting.
Well-Being Team: No one member of staff should be in charge of mental health and well-being during this time; a ‘well-being team’ needs to be established, if one doesn’t already exist, including the Mental Health Lead, SENDCo and DSL plus other key members of staff.
External Support: Establish a list of external agencies and organisations that can provide extra support if needed. For example, agencies like CAMHS, GPs, Early Help referral teams. There are other local and national organisations that can provide support and information to families and schools, such as Winston’s Wish, which supports children and their families with bereavement.
Remember you are doing your best. As headteachers and teachers we are our own worst enemies and always think we can do better! These are unprecedented times, and no one has all the answers. All that you can do is be prepared, do what you feel is right and keep adapting and adjusting.
*Support available from Live Well Consultancy