Wellbeing is crucial at any time, but particularly in light of the pandemic and the challenges it presents. Dr Tina Rae outlines how schools can use therapeutic tools to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.
A new role and a big ask
Schools are being expected to offer an increasing amount of support for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Understanding the fact that you are not being asked to be a therapist or provide therapeutic intervention is essential. However, it is also clearly essential that we develop an appropriate skill set and knowledge base to engage therapeutically in support of children with these complex needs and issues.
What can we do to engage more therapeutically?
In my view there are four keys to successfully engaging therapeutically.
Develop an understanding of trauma and anxiety
It is important to remember and understand how chronic stress, and the effects of trauma and anxiety impact on our thinking. This can then help us to support children more effectively in terms of making the right kinds of adjustments to the learning context and in relating more therapeutically with individuals exhibiting such difficulties. Children and young people may exhibit symptoms such as poor concentration, less reliable working memory and problems with organising and prioritising their work or activities.
It is therefore vital that all involved in supporting them take care to allow additional time to process information and to support them in maintaining organisational skills with a range of tools including personalised checklists, visual timetables, and breaking tasks into smaller more manageable chunks.
It is also important to understand that anxiety very often exhibits itself as anger and embarrassment. They are merely displaying the symptoms of their anxiety. It is therefore vital that the child or young person is supported on an emotional level and not punished for displaying such symptoms. This more nuanced and appropriate response can be also be further supported through the development of trauma informed classrooms and safe spaces.
Create safe spaces
A trauma informed classroom ensures that all children can feel safe, nurtured, and included. There are six key areas we can focus on right now:
- Belonging – making sure the children feel welcomed, wanted and part of the group
- Predictability – ensure routines are explained clearly and with empathy
- Organisation – are routines and activities are consistent and visual checklists are provided as necessary?
- Regulation – teaching an emotional literacy curriculum and ensuring a safe space of calm corner is available to children and young people and that they understand how to use this effectively in order to self-regulate
- Differentiation – reduce processing demands in the classroom and provide clear structures or plans for each task
- Relationships – keep connections healthy and empathic, modelling social skills and valuing and celebrating the strengths and achievements.
Develop an understanding of how to use self-regulation skills and strategies
Self-regulation skills start to develop in early childhood. When children have experienced co-regulation through consistent, sensitive, and nurturing relationships, they begin to learn how to manage their own emotions, rationalise, reason, empathise and problem-solve.
Some calming techniques to model to them and to teach them to self-regulate include.
- Sensory activities
- Controlled breathing
Making use of tools and positive psychology and cognitive behaviour therapy is also extremely effective in terms of supporting overall well-being. These include:
- challenging and reframing thoughts
- engaging in positive self-talk
- using affirmations
- identifying three good things on a daily basis
- expressing gratitude
Maintain self-care routines and peer support for staff teams
A final essential task for all who engage therapeutically is to look to ourselves first. We cannot pour from an empty cup.
So, what are you doing to maintain your own wellbeing? And what are the systems in your school which ensure staff well-being and mental health?
These questions need to be answered first before you begin to take on the role of the therapeutic adult who can successfully nurture our children and young people in a time of evident stress and anxiety.
Article written by Dr Tina Rae:
Dr Tina Rae is a Child Psychologist specialising in children’s mental health. She is also a prolific, award-winning author and dedicated to providing professionals and carers with practical, evidence-based resources and interventions that really work in terms of fostering the wellbeing of children and young people.