The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Low Arousal experiences during lockdown: learning from a family perspective

Gareth D Morewood seeks first-hand experiences from families and draws out five positive lessons to take forward in practice.

The recent months have been extremely challenging for everyone across the globe. The word unprecedented is often used, but rarely warranted. I think it is justified with respect to the current challenges – particularly for educators and families.

Headlines reporting things like only 55% of parents 'engaged in home learning' are problematic for me for several reasons. For example: have parents/carers actually been asked? How do you define ‘engagement’ with learning?

Let’s learn from and celebrate positive experiences

Rather than try and measure the new experiences against previous systems and outcomes (home learning is not home schooling), I think we should find out first-hand what has worked. Let’s learn from and celebrate positive experiences, as opposed to highlighting negative differences against a previous norm.

So, I’ve asked some of families I’ve been engaged with during the last few weeks (and for some even longer) to share first-hand accounts of their experiences in applying Low Arousal approaches to their home learning environments.

I hope that their accounts provide an additional base from which we can develop more sustainable ways forward.  Also, I’ve suggested five ‘takeaways’ I hope to build on in my practice, that may be useful for you too.

Reduced stress levels with a slower pace

Many of the families reported that lockdown reduced the immediate stress and pressures of educational settings, social workers, court officers and health appointments. In fact, being able to ‘set their own agenda’ was a common and important base from which all the families started.

Family A: Lockdown has suited H; she hasn’t been leaving the house much anyway since her college placement failed, so having legitimate reasons not to has reduced a lot of stress. Basically, lockdown has meant that all pressure to leave the house has been removed. Our low arousal lifestyle has been even easier to implement because we haven’t felt under pressure to try to encourage H to leave the house or begin transition into her new college.

Family B: Suddenly not having meetings and appointments every day was like a huge weight being removed from us; I actually managed to get some decent sleep for the first time in ages.

Family D: B wasn’t ready for discussions about re-engaging with school; so, having time to plan and work together was huge. B after a few weeks mentioned planning for September; she would never have said this if the pace was forced or rushed.

Takeaway 1: If this had such a profound and immediate impact, maybe an important learning point for professionals and systems post-lockdown, is to examine the demands and processes imposed on families and to really try and co-produce solutions jointly at an agreed pace?

Access to services

Issues regarding access to services and specialist provision were well-documented prior to lockdown. Interestingly, the majority of families we were working with found access easier during lockdown, mainly due to being able to choose times to suit their new schedules, the reduction of the stress of travelling to and parking at appointments and the more personalised approach that was available.

Family A: We finally managed to get some funding to allow H to begin some therapeutic support and we have made contact with two professionals that H is happy to work with in the last two weeks.

Family D: I was able to access some sessions with my ex jointly on Zoom at 7pm; this was amazing as we could agree plans together, under guidance – I think this was our big breakthrough.

Family C: Being headstrong and independent B rejected our suggested routines and became oppositional. So, we let her try and work it out herself. We noticed her sleep pattern moving to nocturnal and her preoccupation with screens and Fortnite began. That is when the amazing offer of free help from Studio III allowed us to access specialist support at a time that suited us – it was literally exactly what we needed; simple ideas and strategies to reduce stress and plan for our new structures as a family.

Family E: I actually managed to speak with a speech and language therapist for the first time in ages; having a good positive low arousal routine at home really helped focus the discussions and therefore positive results.

Takeaway 2: Maybe the lockdown provides a jolt to providing a more accessible approach to specialist services for families? Rather than trying to park at crowded hospitals, online consultations at times that are best for families and flexible support could improve access, create increased efficiency and massively reduce stress for families and young people.

Social distancing

Personally, I have found the term ‘social distancing’ very interesting, as have many of the young people I have been working with virtually!

One young man said to me: ‘It’s not really social distancing is it? More physical distancing. But they can call it social distancing if they like, ‘cos that suits me too!’

I 100% agree! I hope to try and understand these perspectives more as lockdown eases. Thinking about how day-to-day life can be maintained at ‘distance’ from others seemed to resonate positively with the families I spoke to.

Family A: Social distancing is good for us too.

Family D: Not being ‘forced’ to go to busy places has made the stress of family life so much less; we can now plan and set our own agenda for walks, trips to the shop and most recently visiting granddad.

Family C: We’ve been out of the house twice. When and where she wanted. I get hugs again. She has stopped shouting at us. We just have brought everything down and plan together; she is calmer.

Takeaway 3: I have never been fond of packed, busy places; for me it is not just the physical issues but the sensory ones that come along with large numbers of people. For many young people I speak to, these issues are significantly amplified. Maybe it is time to think how we access shops, sporting events, cinemas and so on and maintain 2m distances and varying access times, for everyone?

I think we all benefit from calm, uncrowded spaces and we now have a real opportunity to ensure giving everyone ‘space’ becomes a new norm.

Accessing information and supporting calm environments

As ever there is a wealth of information available, some which is good and some not so good. Filtering information and navigating the maze of well-intentioned, monetised, and out-of-step information can be really challenging. A common theme was that the families felt better able to choose where they got information from during lockdown, which made a significant difference to their stress and pressure.

Family A: We have been choosy about the way we get information.

Family B: We have been able to spend more time considering information and support during lockdown. Usually everything is so rushed we felt pressured into accepting what was offered, now we can think more and with guidance ensure things don’t ‘compete’ too much in our life.

Family E: I still needed to know what else to do, where I could get good advice and information. So I spoke to a fab lady at Studio III whose soft Irish accent was enough to calm me down as I suppressed the panic in my own voice. The dark thoughts were bothering me. She asked me lots of questions and we concluded that B was highly stressed. I was advised to: not apply pressure and too many questions; avoid homework just focus on things she enjoyed doing; model calmness; try to jointly form a routine; focus on doing art and creative things; maybe join her on TikTok etc. or play games and to walk beside her. These simple ideas allowed us to move from a real crisis into a much calmer space from which we could develop longer-term plans – together.

Takeaway 4: I have often been aware that trying to change things at the point of crisis is absolutely the wrong time to do so; joint, pro-active planning when calm and focused provides the best opportunities for positive outcomes. Ensuring access to good information and support is vital. Maybe now is a great time to focus on accessing support to help create calm and stress-reduced environments from which planning can be jointly undertaken?

Keeping positive

One of the areas that I often chat about is reframing experiences in a positive way. Simple steps like Three Good Things and recording positives each day can make a massive difference – particularly when done jointly as a family group.

I highly recommend reading Dr Chris Moore’s blog Flourishing in stressful times for a positive approach to dealing with pandemic and lockdown, based on the PERMA acronym coined by Martin Seligman.

Family C: We also spoke about using positive recording and were provided with a journal. B dips in and out of this and has tried some of the mindful techniques as well.

Family E: We all tried really hard to focus on positives and model calm: texting warm messages of love a couple of times a day (A preferred text than in person); knock on the door and wait to be allowed in – respecting her space; if A came downstairs we would not remark on it but smile at her casually as we made the environment calm or sometimes fun by dancing in the kitchen A didn’t join but we noticed over time she came downstairs more often and started to smile; we asked her what activities she wanted to do and she eventually said baking so we did.

Family B: We tried the three good things each day but that was too much, so we just found good things, photographed them and sent them to relatives (usually three or four a week) – then we talked together about the replies on emails and texts – this made such a difference as we have positive engagement with family members, despite being locked-down.

Takeaway 5: Never underestimate the power of the positive: simple positive psychology techniques as part of a low arousal culture can be transformational. Celebrating success with young people and families has been the foundation of most of my work during the last 25 years – together is strength. Building a positive culture and focusing on strengths will be vital in re-engaging with life ‘post-lockdown’, and now is the time to think how we can jointly achieve this through proper collaboration.

Limitations and final thoughts

I think it is important to note that the observations in this blog come from five families with whom I (or colleagues at Studio III) have had significant contact during the last few months. I realise that everyone’s experiences are different, but also feel that some of the key points drawn from their experiences may be useful for a wider audience when considering what things will look like in the times ahead.  

All stories in this blog are anonymised and shared with permission. This is not a formal research project or pretending to be anything but a collection of personal experiences. However, if it gets us thinking and supports some positive ways forward, then couldn't the experiences of these five families have a wider, lasting impact for others too?

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