Supporting SEN pupils mental health post-Covid

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Sarah Johnson takes the ‘Thinking About School’ survey as the starting point for pupil-led mental health proposals

In March 2020, the previous Secretary State of Education of England made the statement that schools were closing for the majority of students, in order to reduce the number of infections and deaths, resulting from Covid-19. For the first time in the UK’s education history, a mandate was made for the majority of children to stay at home and not attend school. However, as those working with children identified as having Special Educational Needs and/or medical needs know, absence from school may be something that they experienced long before the pandemic and will continue long after.

As a reflection and assertion that children are the experts in their own lived experiences, the ‘Thinking About School’ survey was designed to be completed by children to share their perspectives. Over 2000 school children from England completed the survey, a similar survey repeated shortly after when many children had returned to school had over 1500 respondents.

One of the young people who participated in the survey commented: “I think the government need to be asking the kids how we feel about going back, our views [are] not being taken into account”

So, how can we draw upon what these children said themselves? We can theme the children’s comments into several important areas, and the good news is that children (those identified with special educational needs, with medical needs or excluded from school as well as those attending mainstream school) offered lots of practical ideas to help those returning to school that can be generalised beyond the pandemic. These themes were friends, teachers and family.

Friends

The connection that children have to others remains an important issue; how they may make friends as well as maintaining them. This is particularly challenging in instances when they have had absences from school, or during key transitions. Whilst moving between schools (such as primary to secondary, mainstream to specialist or Borough to Borough), the often lengthy process of identifying suitable provision can have a fundamental effect on a child’s wellbeing. These system issues may also be compounded by a child’s Special Educational Need. During school closures for COVID-19 we recognised friendship and loneliness as a key factor in children’s wellbeing but we are in danger of forgetting those children who, for whatever reason, may have disrupted attendance at school both long before and after COVID-19. Here are some practical ideas of what we can do to build these connections with other children:

  • Encourage light-touch visits to school with low demands. For example, is there a quiet space that children recently on roll can meet others before attending the classroom environment?
  • Provide opportunities to ‘drop in’ to class through technology such as telepresence solutions or the now ubiquitous virtual platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Classroom?
  • Other children provide a video tour of the environment to share with the new or returning student. 

This may be especially important if there have been changes to the premises or how the school space is used. Family One issue that comes up repeatedly, and with good reason, is the fundamental role of communication between families and schools. Children in the ‘Thinking About School’ survey saw families as being a key element in supporting their mental health in returning to school. Something that is vital, and built around ethos, is ensuring that there is a belief in the experience of parents/carers. Families are the key stakeholder in being able to tell you how their child is doing, what their mood is like when they get home and if there are any worries. Sometimes children may not feel safe expressing this in the school environment but may tell their siblings or parents through words or actions.

Make sure to build in plenty of opportunities for positive and responsive communication between school and families. Some ways in which to develop this include:

• Effective communication with parents/carers. This could be in the form of a home/school record book or pictures of what the child is doing at school/home.

• Recognise that children may prefer home than school, perhaps because of previous experiences of schooling, more manageable sensory demands or feelings of safety fostered by family.

• Sometimes the regular and natural ‘touch-points’ of mainstream school are missed within the context of specialist provision as children may come from further away. Build in opportunities for teachers to be able to speak directly to parents, often this may happen at the school gate but as a SENCO think about how this could be developed despite the use of external transport providers.

Teachers

Along with friends and family, teachers were also cited by children and young people completing the survey as supporting a return to school. Teachers can be fundamental in building a culture in which children feel safe, valued and nurtured. There were comments made around having open communication with their teachers about their thoughts and feelings, with one child saying ‘being able to talk to the teachers’ helped their return to school whilst another simply said ‘my amazing teacher’. There was also the acknowledgement of reciprocity, if teachers are finding things hard then it can have a knock-on effect on a child’s emotional wellbeing with one commenting ‘Teachers being stressed make students stressed’. Some offered ventery practical ideas which are detailed below:

• The use of technology to bring the ‘strange space’ of the school to the child in their home. For example, making a video that a child and their family can look at which helps familiarise themselves with the schooling space.

• Providing structured experiences to share and model empathy, acknowledging how difficult it may be in attending school. This is especially important as it may have been previously that children’s experiences have been dismissed as unimportant or insignificant to other processes relating to school and their Special Educational Need.

• The use of scripting to acknowledge the above, for example, ‘this seems to be making you feel sad, is there anything I can do to make things feel any easier’?. Make sure that you allow the child/young person to correct you and the identification of the emotion they are feeling

(eg “No, I am angry….”)

Ultimately, the suggestions the children offer themselves to support their mental health when returning to school are just that, helpful additions based on approaches and development of relationships through communication and fostering of opportunities. What we need to ensure is that children feel like they belong to a wider community irrespective of their individual circumstances.

The British Education Research Association (BERA, 2018) ethical guidelines were used as the principle framework for ethical guidance. All participants recruited were informed of the aim of the research and recruited via request from their school, local authority or parent.

Sarah Johnson
Author: Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson
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Sarah Johnson is an education consultant at Phoenix Education Consultancy with varied roles including, author, Head of Behaviour and Inclusion for a London Borough, school improvement partner and keynote speaker.
W: phoenixeducationconsultancy.com
T: @PhoenixEdSarah

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