Five ways to help children heal when schools reopen

We may not yet know when schools will reopen for all, but one thing is certain; they will need to be therapeutic. We are living a financial catastrophe; a public health emergency; a mass community trauma. And trauma always falls hardest on still-developing children. The notion that they are naturally resilient is supported by none of the research evidence. Such wishful thinking only hampers proactive attempts to promote healing and recovery. Being fit for purpose must now mean placing wellbeing front and centre and evaluating every element of school policy and practice through that lens.

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The good news is that the potential of schools to heal traumatised children, or to prevent an escalation of need, is huge. Moreover, it does not require the transformation of classrooms into CAMHS clinics or teachers into psychotherapists. The ‘treatment’ is the school community. If we can only harness its healing potential, through straightforward but in many ways paradigm-shifting measures, then a thing of value and strength will have been wrought from pandemic destruction. Adversarial growth will ensure that our schools are better than we were before; their communities more resilient. We will have made meaning.

In her letter to the chancellor, the children’s commissioner outlines a “cocktail of secondary risks” bearing down on vulnerable families, from poverty to homelessness to domestic violence. If closing the gaps means anything at all, it must now mean wrapping the right support around these children – really understanding how to support them – because they will not just bounce back. If the ACEs study  taught us anything, it taught us that.

The children most severely impacted by the pandemic will not find it easy to ‘settle to learn’ (Bomber, 2013) and we must expect their psychological distress to manifest in their behaviour. We know that chronic stress disrupts the nervous system. Many children will be jumpy, volatile, hyper-vigilant; still operating in survival mode and easily triggered into flight or fight reactions. Others may appear dazed or tuned-out. More likely to be girls, these will be the children whose survival strategy is to freeze or to dissociate – to retreat from a frightening and unpredictable outside world into one within the mind that feels more safe.

Never in the history of universal education has there been a more urgent need for our schools to contain and stabilise these children by becoming what Dr Karen Treisman calls the ‘brick parent, the secure base, the safe haven.’ And of course all children will benefit from immersion in the warmth of a relational culture after the deep rupture of Covid-19.

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So what might school leaders do to grow their settings as the brick parents our children need them to become? I’ve suggested five key elements of a wellbeing strategy below, but this is intended as a starting point for further reflection rather than an exhaustive list. Where these is a sense of mission about this work, a commitment to adversarial growth as the only possible way to draw meaning from chaos, then many more ideas will flow.

  1. Hold a formal act of remembrance as a community

We must tread carefully and children must not be re-traumatised, but there is actually a very strong argument for bringing a school community together for organised reflection.; for collective meaning-making. In this piece, Kalayjian writes:

Massive traumatic losses not only create a crisis in the community, they create opportunities for survivors to understand their obligations to one another …. it may well be a paradox that traumatic disasters which disrupt the way of life of a community may well lead to spiritual evolution as long as the community can learn from and find positive meaning in a communal crisis.

A remembrance event could take a wide range of forms. The whole school could clap for carers again and honour the NHS. Perhaps some of the things that pupils achieved when they were out of school could be shared and celebrated. Lots of these are coming through via schools’ social media accounts, but they could also be the basis for an assembly – a celebration of our resourcefulness as a community.

Some children will have lost family members. They might like to have their names read out, followed by a silence. We mustn’t allow bereavement to be a subject too difficult to talk about in school, a stigma, and the community must be given the opportunity to respect personal tragedies and to show compassionate solidarity with its members. We don’t generally invite parents and carers to secondary school assemblies but this might be a good opportunity to reach out to them, given that we have all been in this together. Alternatively, a Podcast of the event could be shared with families. 

        2. Place relationships front and centre and build social capital

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Teachers must be encouraged to be humans first in the wake of this crisis and to build positive relationships, especially with those children who struggle to form social bonds because of their experiences; their lack of trust in adults. These will be the children most in need of what Dr. Perry calls ‘social buffering’ and reaching out to them must be a deliberate strategy, not left to chance. In Dr. Karen Treisman’s memorable words, ‘Every interaction is an intervention.’

The more severely children are traumatised, the more repetition, the more positive relational experiences are needed for healing to occur. Dr. Perry’s calls this ‘therapeutic dosing’:

The good news is that anyone can help with this part of “therapy” – it merely requires being present in social setting and being, well, basically, kind….The more we can provide each other these moments of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or moment of eye-contact – the more we’ll be able to help heal those who have suffered traumatic experience. (From The Boy who was Raised as a Dog)

There will also be a need to deploy kind words and acts strategically, otherwise the Matthew Effect of sharing more of ourselves with children who are already relationally rich and less with the relationally poor will not be mitigated. Information sharing will be crucially important, so far as confidentially allows it. As teachers seeing over a hundred children and young people a day, we cannot target the resource that is our compassion at greatest need if we don’t know where we are needed most. Daily briefings will be key.

Trauma-training for all staff (non-teaching included) will be essential if they are to understand the difference they can make, through simple connection. Most staff will be encouraged by the knowledge that the small things they do and say have such healing potential. Pastoral leads in particular worry greatly about the finite supply of CAMHS therapists against the mountain of need that they see. Reassuring them that the most powerful therapy for trauma is actually in abundant supply all around them will allow them to manage their own anxiety in relation to not doing enough or not being up to the scale of the challenge. They just need the support of colleagues – everyone on the same page and playing their part.

      3. Identify and support children in most need of social buffering

If we value it, we measure it. A simple wellbeing rating scale completed by all pupils – 1 to 10 – and the question, ‘Name an adult in this school who you trust and can talk to’, will suffice. Some children will have expressed their need for additional support through their distressed behaviour. But if we rely on this feedback alone, then we may miss the dissociated children and those hiding through freeze who are equally distressed and in need of intervention.

Dr. Perry is clear that the need to process painful events by revisiting them is universal. In the aftermath of a distressing or traumatic event, we have intrusive thoughts. We keep thinking about what happened and we keep telling and retelling the event to trusted friends or loved ones. This is because our brains know what to do – rather than locking pain away unprocessed, we are driven to habituate it through the act of talking. The pain of loss then becomes tolerable, not toxic.

Teachers and other adults who listen with empathy  perform an important therapeutic function, without being therapists. Some children will be carrying enormous emotional burdens and school might be their only place for talking about these.  When this is the case, then the one-to-one with the trusted adult might be more important than form time, or a lesson, and flexibility will be required. If we don’t create these opportunities for children who need them, then blocked grief can drive self-destructive, dysregulated behaviours and mental illness. Flexibility is a major way of demonstrating that wellbeing is our first priority.

All pupils and families will benefit from being reassured that this is a listening school. As well as screenings, worry boxes (or inboxes), a morning check-in as part of the daily routine, circles, drop-ins, all of these strategies and more are worth introducing if they are not already available for children and families. The message from school needs to be that we do get this and if you are struggling, we want to know.

The virtual check-ins that have been established with vulnerable families during lockdown should be maintained. Paradoxically, social distancing measures have brought some schools closer to their most vulnerable children and families – a tremendously positive consequence of Covid-19 that mustn’t be jettisoned through a return to business as usual.

      4. Reaffirm boundaries, rules and routines as safety measures

Prioritising wellbeing and sweating the small stuff are mutually exclusive; a sure way of inducing rather than reducing stress by turning school into a pressure cooker of exacting, and sometimes from the pupil perspective, arbitrary standards. However, children do need clearly demarcated boundaries to feel psychologically as well as physically safe and the importance of these will need to be emphasised, in safety terms, on pupil’s return.

Rejoining a community will be frightening for those children who have internalised the message that people outside the home are a threat to life. If we can’t make children feel safe, they will not be able to learn. It’s a basic need that must be met so this messaging will be hugely important. Consistency will be critical – if we are allowed to shake hands again, then it is because it is safe to do that. Any member of staff suggesting otherwise undermines the sense of security that it must be our shared mission to re-establish.

Rules, some of which may well be Covid-related and new, should be stated in a positive way (ie. Do…as opposed to Don’t) in simple, limited language and kept to a small number that can easily be remembered and recalled by all pupils and staff. (Jarlath O’Brien, 2020).

Routines also serve to create a sense of safety because they are predictable, allowing hyper-vigilant children to lower their guard. Contributing greatly to an atmosphere of order and calm, it is going to be important to reteach routines when pupils return and to provide visual as well as verbal reminders. It will be helpful to think of all pupils as new starters, in need of clear and reassuring instruction.

      5. Re-evaluate and reaffirm core values, recognising all

Many of us have been reflecting on what really matters to us during this period of community trauma – we have reassessed our values and vowed to make changes in our lives, rather than just reverting back to the old ways. We might have resolved to appreciate simple pleasures more, our loved ones, to prize our personal connections over our possessions, and so on. We have reflected in a wide range of ways and in so doing, we have fashioned something of value from the wreckage of the virus. We have experienced adversarial growth.

Leaders should engage in the same process when schools reopen, collectively. This is an opportunity like no other to engage the whole school community in thinking about what really matters. Are we the same or have we changed? What matters most to us now and how do we live that?

Jarlath O’Brien writes about the way he approached this as a new Headteacher in Leading Better Behaviour (2020). Parents, governors, pupils and staff were asked, ‘What should our children be able to do when they leave here?’ Assimilating responses, he arrived at ‘When students leave, they should be ambitious, articulate, caring, determined, independent, resilient, respectful, responsible and successful’ (p13).

It was then important to embed and celebrate the values by recognising pupils demonstrating them on a day to day basis. A culture of recognition was created. It has been established already that children will need opportunities to talk through what has been difficult for them when they return to their schools, but it is also our duty as educators to fill them with a sense of hope and of their resourcefulness.

Transformation through trauma

A psychological phenomenon that enables individuals to look forward in life instead of being stuck in the past, adversarial growth is the hope. It enables people to emerge from highly challenging life experiences with increased emotional strength and resilience, a heightened sense of appreciation and improved personal relationships.  Some studies have shown that almost 90% of  victims report at least one aspect of post-traumatic growth after the stressful experience. (Tedeschi, 1990) That is a lot of personal growth to work with, in the wake of a mass trauma, and when our school leaders are able to harness it within a shared mission to help our children heal, then that could be transformational.

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Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

13 thoughts on “Five ways to help children heal when schools reopen

  1. Hi Mary
    I have just watched your live discussion with Lisa Cherry and Steve Russell. I have recently completed trauma informed schools practitioner course at Institute Arts in Therapy and Education in London. I completed the training after became a specialist teacher supporting primaries to prevent exclusions. I am based in Nottinghamshire and I have already raised the point about having a plan for when the schools reopen. I would be really interested to hear about Lincolnshire’s ideas. I love the Relationship approach and I have spent most of my time working with schools/staff to achieve this with some success. it was a great discussion Thank you

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    1. A great article, thanks. I wonder if parents/ guardians were asked to indicate how their child is doing on return to school as a matter of course, and to highlight particular concerns or issues. Eg a form issued by the school. It might flag children who are having particular difficulty. Some parents are reluctant to make contact and child may not want it either but if it is a request from the school it gives parents a prompt and permission.

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  2. What an insightful and relevant discussion! I am a Support for Learning Worker and had many anxieties around school closures and the impact it would have on children. The covid-19 virus and slowing it’s transmission had to take priority in March but now, as we are nearing 3 months of this trauma, and gaining no ground on beating the virus the focus has to shift as to how we regain control of our own lives and create a new normal. Children will need us all to shield them, nurture them and guide them. Thankyou for the great read.

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  3. Hi Mary, super article. I will be sharing with our SLT on Monday. Only slightly spooked as my maiden name was Mary Meredith! And I’m Inclusion team leader in a primary school.

    Liked by 1 person

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