Settling back to learning in September – how leaders can create the conditions

Many teachers will be feeling apprehensive about their ability to settle classes in September; fretful dreams about losing control will be disturbing sleep, amplified this year because of the unchartered waters that lie ahead. For all of leaders’ planning, and their re-planning following eleventh hour DfE guidance, September is a step into the unknown for staff and pupils alike and there is no doubt that school communities will be fragile during the period of transition.

In stabilizing them, leaders are well advised to reflect on the biology of stress. Levels will need to be deliberately managed, so far as that is possible. We know that tolerable stress is positive – indeed, learning itself requires the experience of some degree of stress – so it is not to be avoided at all costs. But high levels reduce access to the cortical brain, where learning, refection, self-regulation occur, and pupils who experience the return as stress-inducing will therefore be less able to behave appropriately than those whose baseline of stress is lower. 

The same applies to staff, of course, because they are human too. Some will feel profoundly unsafe on return to school, and they too will be operating from the brainstem region when this is the case.

We know that stress is highly contagious. One study of cortisol levels in pupils, taken through saliva samples, showed a direct correlation between the average level in class and that of self-reported teacher-burnout. (Oberle and Schonert-Reichl, 2016) It works the other way too; our calm is contagious. It is through this that we are able to co-regulate highly activated children and young people, just by being attuned and alongside.

As emotional contagion super-carriers, leaders have the power to either induce or reduce stress in staff and subsequently the entire school community: if they succeed in making the adults feels safe, thereby reducing stress, then those adults will be in the best possible place to share their calm rather than their anxiety with pupils, helping them settle back to learning. The importance of their role in this should be made explicit to staff in September because pupils will need that emotional support, but clearly the right conditions must be created first: staff will actually need to feel safe.

Drawing now on the Mobilise staff wellbeing webinars that many Lincolnshire schools accessed during lockdown, it is worth once again flagging Simon Sinek’s work on leadership. He developed a concept called the ‘Circle of Safety’ which he introduces in Leaders Eat Last (2017) thus: “Only when we feel we are in a ‘Circle of Safety’ will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.”

With the conditions outside school gates so very challenging, the six principles of trauma-informed care from Trauma Informed Oregon will also be of interest to leaders who may wish to consider them as they fine-tune their inset-day presentations. Adapted by the Mobilise team to apply to the current situation, they are as follows and can be read in their unmodified here:

  1. Physical Safety
  • Communicate all measures taken to ensure all staff are confident; staff feel that their physical safety is a priority
  • Highlight management of space and bubble; entry and exit procedures
  • Invite feedback and adopt the language staff use for open and honest talk
  • Attend to staff unease
  • Plan rotas so that staff can have physical (but safe) contact with others

2. Emotional Safety

  • Focus on the certainty – the things that you can control
  • Demonstrate flexible consistency. Uncertainty is very stressful, so to the extent that an organisation can be consistent and predictable, this will lower stress levels.
  • Normalise stressors and pressures
  • Share arrangements for regular check-ins, check-ups and check-outs. Staff need to feel supported and safe to speak about vicarious trauma, work related stress, and other emotional considerations
  • Make time for regulation; pausing between activities, mindfulness
  • Create structure, keep structure. Keep your meetings, honour your staff by being punctual and predictable.

3. Peer support and relationship

  • Create buddy networks/1:1s with a trusted colleague(s) for regular check-ins
  • Arrange supervision and/or coaching
  • Celebrate the wins for the day or week
  • Help yourself by helping others. Practising kindness and helping others reinforces feelings of agency and control and creates feelings of empowerment and connection

4. Trust and transparency

  • Share regular concise updates of ‘what is known’ with clarity and candour
  • Share and be transparent with key policy updates and changes & invite feedback
  • Explain the ‘why’ behind protocols and procedures
  • Be clear what decisions can be made by individuals
  • Convey strength and sensitivity. During a time of crisis, staff look for strength and leadership in the organisation; however, it’s also important to convey compassion and sensitivity; staff need to feel they are cared for; this builds trust
  • Examine current expectations; consider how established work practices can be adjusted; be flexibly direct, about what needs to be done today or this week

5. Voice, choice and empowerment

  • Share power; for example, what decisions can staff make without approval?
  • Provide choice whenever possible. 
  • Provide staff with the scripts needed to explain the situation and policies to parents and pupils.

6. Cultural responsivity

  • Recognise and build upon the cultural strengths of your community
  • Be optimistic about the potential of working with parents
  • Talk to parents who are less involved in school life about what support they would find helpful
  • Ensure communication is two-way: consulting with parents about how they can be involved is likely to be valuable and increase the effectiveness of home-school relationships
  • Use strategies that encourage engagement and minimise mistrust

Guided by these principles, leaders will create a sense of safety, belonging and agency for employees such that they are able to perform, unconstrained by fear or threat. Physical bubbles have dominated thinking and planning, but as headteachers consider their messages for staff when schools reopen next week, the psychological bubble should be held in mind. Ultimately, only this will allow staff and pupils to thrive.

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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.

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