“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (World Health Organisation)
Timing can be everything, even in our uncertain Covid-19 times.
With the aftermath of the first national lockdown (and with rumours in the air of a second lockdown that is now underway); mental well-being is steadfastly at the top of the educational and national agendas.
Part of TSSW’s commitment to the Covid-19 response to support schools our TSSW Mental Well-Being Week was especially well timed, scheduled at the end of the first term of the new academic year. A notoriously challenging first term for both new and experienced teachers; supporting positive, mental health has seldom been so vital.
Nearly 90 schools registered for the week at a subsidised cost that enabled all colleagues within their school to attend over 30 live and pre-recorded webinars across the five days. Programmed at the end of the school day to allow colleagues the headspace and time to benefit from the sessions; some schools across the region also benefited from dedicated time during the staff training day on the last day of term to take the opportunity to plug in.
Topics were varied and of the moment. All the more relevant and real in the time of Covid, and designed to support busy schools and staff as they juggle a multitude of changing challenges in their day-to-day working life. The spirit of the week was caring and constructive sessions led by professional experts in their field; but delivered with a heartening humanity; sharing experience, expertise and enthusiasm.
Some sessions were devoted to supporting the well-being of children and young people.
Much-admired Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, Dr Pooky Knightsmith presented on meeting the mental health needs of the school community. Speaking with wisdom and insight, she told how focusing on the worst aspects can become the best and emphasised the importance of teachers as good role models. All staff need to stop and mentally recharge and be imaginative in promoting their own well-being. Headteachers need to have lunch too! Meeting the needs of the few, often meets the needs of the many.
Schools need to be safe, warm and welcoming places and accessible to parents and families in order to work together as a team around the child. Opening up and seeking help can become a sign of strength rather than weakness. An interesting tip for signposting to vulnerable children and young people was using the back of toilet doors to post helplines, websites and other pathways; as one of the rare places that students can seek a private quiet space during the school day. A hard (and upsetting) subject at any time for a school community, Pooky also provided practical strategies to support those children and young people who self-harm and provided guidance on trying to understand the reasons why.
Thinking about children with autism, Jo Billington, spoke sensitively about supporting anxious autistic children and young people. As well as undertaking Doctoral research at the Centre of Autism at Reading University Jo works with the Charlie Waller Trust, helping people to understand mental health and provides support to GPs, schools and families. Jo explained how every autistic child is unique. By using positive, proven and practical solutions she explored the nature of anxiety with clear and constructive strategies and recommended the practical use of the Blob Tree, Worry Eaters, Chateez cards to scaffold conversations. Creating an autism-friendly environment and improving understanding can help to reduce stress for autistic children; ultimately equipping them to survive and thrive in school - and in life beyond the classroom.
Jo reiterated the value of conversation in talking about mental health with children and young people as a way of mitigating mental health issues and giving a greater focus, rather than simply putting a plaster over issues. Difficult feelings are a normal part of life and whilst life is about experiencing a wide range of emotions, the danger is when it tips and becomes a mental health issue, impacting negatively on life.
Teachers will know that they are the first responders in school and have a significant role to play in supporting children, which can be a worry as teachers are not usually trained as mental health experts. Powerfully however, adolescents say that the most important reason why they report to teachers about mental health issues is precisely because teachers are not an expert and they value them listening and not judging, resisting the need to fix and solve. Jo guided on how to use open questions and how to conduct a reflective conversation: “What I’m hearing from what you’re saying is…” rather than presuming. Open silences can be helpful for the child to think, process, and reflect and consideration should also be given to the physical environment: seating, distractions and whether to sit side by side or go for a walk and talk.
Children need to have a voice and Advocacy Leads Across the Learn to Live Federation, Dawn Lewis and Amy Ley introduced advocacy for children and young people and reiterated the value of giving them the opportunity to practise advocating on behalf of fellow students. Vulnerable students need lots of input. Sharing insights from his own background, Mark Escott, CEO and Co-Founder of Life Chance, focused on the sensitive issue of trauma recovery, as schools will know that the loss of a child or staff member can have upsetting, emotional repercussions across the whole school. Counselling in schools was part of supporting well-being and Sarah Lord of Education South West and Heartwood Counselling and Psychotherapy College provided supportive and therapeutic interventions and Mike Armiger of Oxford University Press gave practical advice on supporting the mental well-being of primary and secondary children.
Other sessions focused on the mental and physical well-being of staff.
Educational psychologist of Sunrise Psychology, Amanda Tyler presented on the now familiar modern concept of mindfulness and reminded about the value of living in the moment and provided a hands-on Stress Survival Toolkit (What can help to move me down one point? What else can I put in my tool kit? What will help me to remember? I’m thankful for…).
Nutritional Therapist, Jen McDiarmid shared her knowledge of nourishing the body and boosting the immune system to support stress and anxiety, low mood and depression. Whilst our bodies are designed to have stress in short bursts, prolonged stress can be harmful; along with poor diet, pollution and lack of sleep and warned against the determinantal effect of too much sugar and caffeine. For many this introduction to gut well-being was encouraging with practical insights to improve inner health for a thriving body and mind, stabilising blood sugar levels by eating a healthy diet of fruit and vegetables and vitamins and minerals. Long-term dietary changes will always sustain rather than short-term diets to be the best version of yourself as you can be.
There was opportunity to get on the floor and relax with Mindfulness and Yoga Teacher, Jade Franklin’s end of the day yoga and mindfulness session, and understanding it is worth pausing and making a choice about reacting in a way that is most helpful to us and others around us, and where to put our attention and how to act wisely.
Certified health coach Stuart Griffin of Mojo Health gave some helpful pointers on stress management and sleep optimisation, speaking sincerely from his own experience about these two modern curses and their damaging effects on cardiovascular health that can lead to serious health issues. Striking a balance in life: remember when you were a child, happy and carefree. Stuart shared practicable do-able tips, including breathing techniques (in for 3, hold for 4, breath out for 5), and getting up early to avoid rushing and becoming stressed (making lunch the night before!). Maintain a positive gratitude attitude, learn to let go; and in theory an easy tip, but not always when stress becomes overwhelming – remember to laugh. We all know that stress is not fun. So, build in more joy and do more of what makes you feel happy.
More tips for improved sleep to keep a healthy body and mind with an overview about sleep waves, and moving from light sleep to deep sleep, essential for memory consolidation. Eat early and no bedtime snacking, keep hydrated and build in relaxation down time - and avoid those blue lights on electronic devices (a timely reminder for us all!).
Various sessions examined a joined-up supportive approach across the school community. Deputy Head of Wadebridge College, Sion Williams looked at mental health and well-being as “everyone’s business” and shared the work at his school, making mental well-being an accountable part of the school’s improvement plans and performance management process and similarly, Vice Principal at Sidmouth College, Matthew White considered mental health for schools as a strategic approach and demonstrating the seriousness of mental well-being.
Author Julia Steward reiterated that school leaders also need to be supported in her talk on sustaining resilience for school leadership. Also mindful of the emotional impact of mental health on professionals, Director of Talking Heads Lisa Lea-Weston looked at the importance of supervision in schools and integrating it into the education culture, similar to health and social care; all the more relevant when educators are expected to provide mental health support and external services are being reduced at the same time. Part of safeguarding, by completing this “circle of support” school staff can look after themselves and the children and young people in their care. Governors need to be looked after too and TSSW SEND SLE Karen Sewell looked at Send Governance in a session devoted to these valued members of the school team, many of whom also have busy day jobs.
Demonstrating the seriousness of mental well-being on the national agenda, Professors Catherine Gallop, Hollie Gay and Jonathan Parker of the University of Exeter provided an academic research-based approached to supporting mental health in education settings and provided perceptive policy, practice and impact. TSSW PSHE SLE, Lisa Whitworth looked at Staff Well-Being and based on empirical evidence measuring how staff are really doing. By using validated measures school leaders can learn accurately about staff well-being by engaging in discussions and actively prioritising well-being by identifying pinch points in the academic calendar to provide meaningful support; for example, the scheduling of parents evenings. Ultimately, pragmatic measures that increase staff happiness and reduce staff absence.
Delegates could also access the Social, Emotional Mental Health and the Professional Assessment webinar series provided free by TSSW to all schools this Autumn Term as an additional part of the Covid-19 Mental Well-Being support offer. Specific topics on supporting the mental well-being of primary and secondary children and young people were delivered by the team of psychologists with strategies for a dyslexia-friendly classroom and an update on exam access arrangements for SENDCos.
With the continued restrictions on movements we have all learned to adapt to the webinar training format. Online training allows greater access for more colleagues to join together and learn together – which, thinking positively - saves travel time and provides more time for marking and planning AND relaxing! Colleagues also have opportunity to watch the sessions in their own time and place until mid-November. Personal and real time face-to-face interaction may be limited, but it was inspiring to see discussions amongst colleagues and presenters in the webinar chat boxes. We are living in interesting times and interacting in interesting ways.
In feedback about the positives of the week one delegate’s “Even Better If” was:
“To do this every year! It was so refreshing to have an INSET day devoted to our own personal wellbeing, really appreciated and I know the children will reap the benefits too from having calmer stronger staff.”
Report by Jude Owens