As school leaders begin to ponder how best to prepare for a return of the school community, the confusing enormity of their task is unfolding. They are accustomed to integrating vulnerable children from complex backgrounds at the beginning of a new school year, but the issues confronting them now are multiple – and are likely to have affected every group in their school, whether pupils, teachers, TAs, admin or ancillary staff. It is not just the number of bereavements that have occurred, but the mental and emotional stresses that have been generated by ‘lockdown’ and how adults and children have managed those – or not. Data is already being published on the impact of social isolation and it is the younger people, the 12-25 year-olds who have found it the hardest (and had the least ‘voice’) even with the technology that they have to hand for making those social connections.
Social isolation forces a person, a family, a community into a place where there is little choice to confront the developing awareness of your own resilience and resources – or lack of them. For some children and adults, just being in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time without any prospect of easy escape will generate toxic stress. Children that could exit the family home when the going got tough have had to stay and listen to the verbal abuse and see the domestic violence and perhaps suffer abuse themselves. The stresses of parenting increased for everyone, but particularly for those already vulnerable through poverty, social isolation and poor mental health. For some parents there has been a toxic overwhelm with the likely outcome of domestic violence or child abuse. For others, the experience has led to the realisation that a relationship with a partner is no longer sustainable and they are now in that place where they are facing further stresses at the thought of separation.
Whatever the particular situation, it is likely that, regardless of age, many of those returning to school will be returning with a burden of stress and anxiety. We can call it PCSD (Post Covid Stress Disorder).
Unfortunately, but inevitably, at the outset of the pandemic, two very conflicting messages were being referenced, deriving from two different branches of science: neuroscience informing us that in times of stress we need to develop nurturing connections with others to strengthen our emotional and physical resilience and medical science telling us we must endure prolonged physical isolation to slow down the spread of COVID-19. We have obviously followed the medical message which is aimed at securing our physical survival. But now it’s time to see what we can do about healing emotional and mental injuries and restoring psychic health.
In order to provide a response to this, myself and colleague Liza Lomax have developed a programme to support the recovery and resilience of all members of an organisation or community, regardless of age, is one which is based on attachment and trauma research and recognises that the brain is a social organ; recovery therefore happens most quickly and effectively where there is a good relationship, ideally a secure connection of the sort that mirrors the connection between a good-enough parent and their child, and the nurture it provides.
The children who return to school with the covid-19 message firmly imprinted in their unconscious may initially see others as a threat to life and be anxious in the large classroom group. The teacher who has conscientiously observed ‘lockdown’ to protect her two young children may well return to school with separation anxiety and initially struggle with the demands of the return to the classroom. Pupils’ parents may feel the same anxiety and keep their children off school. And our task in school is to create an environment that powerfully communicates safety, primarily through the quality of the interactions that the key adults have with others, whether children and their parents, or colleagues.
The session will focus on the following:
- The social impact of COVID-19 and ‘lockdown’
- Searching for Safety through a social justice lens understanding the inequalites of impact of the pandemic)
- Detailed focus on the vulnerabilities of both staff, children and their families
- Relational approaches to behaviours and issues we can expect to see
- Creating a web of safety
- Managing transitions
- Building on the positives
As I am unlikely to return to face to face training for the coming months, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request my recommended colleague, Liza Lomax. Liza is inspirational trainer and therapist who, for the first twenty-eight years of her career taught in secondary and tertiary institutions and with her family, fostered children for over twenty-five years will be delivering that training. Incidentally, Liza has had and recovered from COVID 19 so will be available once schools are ready to return.