Jose Negrin is Head of Therapeutic Support at West Lea School which caters for students aged 4-19 with special educational needs over three campuses. Jose explains the strategies, resources and tools in place at West Lea School to deal with the new and complex challenges that COVID-19 has brought on the wellbeing and mental health needs of their pupils as well as their staff.
September is one of the most challenging months for educational settings; the new academic year brings plenty of planning, and after a six-week break for students, teachers often need to re-establish routines and protocols. While for special schools like West Lea, this can be an even greater challenge, this year, COVID-19 has presented all schools with an added layer of complexity.
Young people cope in different ways
It has been an incredibly testing time, and there has been grave concern around the impact lockdown has had on mental health and wellbeing. While initially it was thought that children would be the most affected, in fact, sometimes they have better capacity to adapt than adults.
The transition to new ways of teaching and learning has been difficult for all involved, but we have also seen instances where children have coped incredibly well at home. This is because, for some children, anxiety can be attributed to the stresses that school life brings for them - for example struggling with classwork, problems with relationships, bullying, etc.
For those children, being at home has been a positive experience, and returning to school requires greater support. Separating children into ‘bubbles’ has proved to be beneficial, particularly at West Lea; having smaller groups has made it easier for students to settle back into school and has helped our teachers manage their return relatively easily. We have already seen fewer incidents and less challenging behaviour compared to previous years.
Making time for staff wellbeing
This has been an equally challenging time for school staff with ups and downs along the way. In addition to regular touchpoints during lockdown and since the return to school, staff at West Lea can now access emotional support through “Right Steps Counselling”, an external agency services for confidential 24/7 support. This extends beyond anxiety relating to COVID-19, supporting staff with a variety of other mental health issues and difficult situations.
We are planning workshops for staff on wellbeing and stress management, ensuring they not only have the provision they need, but also the skills and expertise to identify and support student wellbeing.
Sadly, mental health still has a stigma attached to it. Therefore, a holistic approach to mental wellbeing, along with the right support and services, is essential to overcome this and support recovery – especially in educational settings.
Taking a holistic approach
Working on an individual basis is no longer enough; schools need to look at the bigger picture and make assessments based on collective observations. At West Lea, we incorporate different professional perspectives (from clinical psychologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, art psychotherapists and speech and language therapists) to better understand how one factor has the potential to impact another. For example, a child displaying behavioural issues may simply be attributed to lockdown anxiety. Looking at this holistically, staff can also consider other factors which may be affecting behaviour including physical pain or issues with their communication. It’s only when you start working collaboratively can you paint a clearer picture, and put the right student wellbeing interventions in place.
My new role as Head of Therapeutic Support reinforces West Lea’s commitment to mental health and wellbeing. As part of this, we are establishing a long-term strategy and pathway for support across the whole school. Benefitting from internal expertise and resource, we can now streamline our support across our different campuses. Having a central approach for wellbeing helps us oversee everything taking place across various sites and avoid working in silo. For instance, rather than looking at the one individual acting out, we can assess their surroundings (peers, the class, staff) and consider why it is happening. These insights then help us provide more effective support in the form of whole school intervention.
It’s also important to keep parents informed and involved. We have a family support officer who regularly communicates with parents, providing reassurance and guidance to help them reinforce and support wellbeing outside of the classroom.
If I could share one piece of advice with school leaders, it would be that while there is pressure surrounding the curriculum, timetables and results right now, we should strongly focus on wellbeing. If someone is struggling with their wellbeing, they cannot learn – and the same applies to staff and their teaching. It’s therefore important to provide regular touchpoints for communication. Being willing and available to those who may want to reach out when they’re ready will ensure everyone in the school community feels supported and knows they have a network they can rely on. Combining this with a long-term strategy will enable all schools to ensure children can flourish, both now and in the future.