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

Adele Bates

Pandemic permissions: let’s keep talking about mental health and wellbeing

‘Actually, I’m not that great.’ What would change if we put conversations about mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of our work in schools?

Around Christmas I got a text from someone I vaguely know: ‘sorry, I’m not able to work on that right now, I’m having trouble with my mental health’.

As my empathy went out, I realised how refreshing it was.

No excuses, no trying to make things out to be better than they were, and – impressively – they chose to respond with that rather than just ignore me.

Into January and I was interviewed on a panel for a podcast about the new RSE and health curriculum, which was due to be compulsory in September 2020. We discussed what actually had happened and how we might still bring in the curriculum amidst the global pandemic. Lucy Emmerson from the Sex Education Forum shared a wonderful perspective that I have returned to ever since: she said that since the pandemic, our vocabulary and awareness around mental health, wellbeing and emotions has shifted dramatically – what better foundation from which to build a curriculum for relationships, sex and health?

Or – as I propose in the conclusion of my forthcoming book, “Miss, I don’t give a sh*t”, Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools – what if mental and emotional wellbeing becomes the foundation not just for one part of our curriculum, but for our whole education system?

A shared language and increased understanding

Returning to the text message: despite not knowing each other well, the shared language and increased understanding we have gained around mental health since the pandemic, allowed them to communicate without going into anything too vulnerable or personal, and it gave me the opportunity to know where I stood on the next stage of the work we were doing together.

We need to understand that a child’s behaviour may differ when going through something such as a bereavement

In the many online meetings I’ve attended in the last 12 months, I’ve noticed that we’re asking each other how we are actually doing a lot more. The response ‘not great, really’ – as in the children are driving me mad, my partner is drilling in our home office and I can no longer see as my fringe has grown too long – is no longer unusual. Knowing where someone is emotionally makes it a far more productive meeting. It enables us to differentiate.

Taking it into the classroom

How can we take this into classrooms and education? If a pupil has the language and vocabulary to communicate when something is wrong, in a way that I can hear and understand, then I am much more likely to differentiate the learning to meet their current needs (which may be different to last lesson’s), and they are much less likely to express these needs through negative or disruptive behaviour.

If behaviour is communication, then the easier it is for our pupils to communicate with us, the easier it will be to maintain more positive behaviour cultures.

Let's harness the permission the pandemic has (finally) given us to put conversations about mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of our work

If we increase our shared vocabulary then we can also differentiate more effectively. One fledgling area of this I have seen in the last few months is around bereavement. Unfortunately, a higher percentage of pupils are experiencing bereavement now – and so as educators we are quickly equipping ourselves to support this, learning what going through bereavement may do to a pupil, how they might react, in what ways we can differentiate our approach to them so that they are still able to access learning when they can.

Importantly, we need to understand as educators that a child’s behaviour may differ when going through something such as a bereavement – and that punishing them for that is not only detrimental to their learning, but also detrimental to their wellbeing.

Understanding more about bereavement:

Thriving on an alternative narrative?

Gavin Williamson, the current Secretary of State for Education, recently wrote an article headlined ‘There is nothing Dickensian about a well-ordered, disciplined classroom’, speaking of the need to ‘crackdown’ on our pupils and instil more discipline into schools since the return from lockdown. For me it’s clear that this view does not come from a place of experience of working with pupils.

Luckily, there are an increasing number of people-who-actually-work-with-and-in-schools who know this narrative is not helpful. There is a movement of educators galvanised to harness the permission the pandemic has (finally) given us to put conversations about mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of our work.

Please have the conversations with others, so that we might offer an alternative narrative

I am honoured to be a founding member of a group of such people who, at the start of the first lockdown in 2020, got together (virtually) to work out how we could champion the evolution of wellbeing in schools and their communities: The Education Wellbeing Collective. It’s a collaboration of education experts, working directly in fields such as behaviour support, safeguarding, EdTech, character education and teaching assistant development. Together we have a written The Big Book of Whole School Wellbeing which will be published later this year – a practical how-to for school leaders and teachers on putting into practice what we know to be true.

Meanwhile, if you too believe that the focus on emotional wellbeing needs to remain at the heart of education – please share, please have the conversations with others, so that we might offer an alternative narrative to supporting our young people to thrive with their education – even during a global pandemic.

Continuing the conversation about RSE

Want to develop your RSE culture and curriculum to equip pupils to recognise and build healthy relationships and emotional wellbeing? Save the date for the Delivering Statutory RSE 2021 conference.

 

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