Back in May 2021, children’s charity Barnado’s warned about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. In an online poll, conducted by YouGov, Barnardo’s asked more than 4,000 children and young people aged eight to 24 across Great Britain about how they were feeling now compared to before the pandemic…
● 58% of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said they were feeling stressed
● 54% are worried
● 52% are sad
● And 56% are lonely more now than before the coronavirus pandemic.
Younger children fared better than their older peers, but almost a third of eight–15-year-olds surveyed said they were experiencing feeling stressed and worried more now than before the coronavirus pandemic.
Only 16% of GB children aged eight to 15 reported they were experiencing these respective feelings less now than before the coronavirus pandemic. And one of their top fears was getting behind in their studies or spreading the virus.
In July 2021, one in six children aged five to 16, were recorded as having ‘a probable mental health problem’ (see The impact of the pandemic, p26). This February, the BBC reported on the alarming 77% rise in children needing specialist treatment for severe mental health issues2 post-pandemic.
The data is alarming and children have been exposed to loss, fear, hardship, loneliness and more – far more than they ordinarily would and in such a short space of time. They have experienced isolation, lost face-to-face contact with their peers, missed out on social interaction at key stages of their lives, as well as physical interaction whether that be play time, PE or team sports outside of the school environment.
We spoke to a number of schools to gauge the impact of the pandemic on their pupils and to find out what support they have in place and what mechanisms they have to identify students who might be struggling.
Tom Emmet, assistant head (pastoral) and DSL, Solihull School, shares some of the initiatives in place at his school: “We have been fortunate at Solihull that a number of strategic investments to support the wellbeing and welfare of pupils were already in place before the onset of the pandemic. The investment in our tutoring system in school counsellors and therapists, experienced nurses and an on-curriculum Wellbeing and Personal Development programme, to name but a few, has continued to give pupils personalised guidance and coaching throughout the lockdowns and different phases of the pandemic.
“During the same period, as part of a whole school culture of wellbeing and pastoral support, staff have spent significant time developing their working knowledge of bereavement support, adolescent and adult mental health, self-harm, trauma, learning support and other contemporary issues in education through targeted CPD in response to pupil needs. We have over 100 mental health youth first aid trained staff and 20 members of staff trained in adult mental health first aid.”
“…we believe that wellbeing is crucial to living a happy and fulfilled life, and we aspire to empower our students with confidence” – Andrea Greystoke, founder of Abercorn School
Meanwhile, Andrea Greystoke, founder of Abercorn School, a family of schools in central London, said: “We place a great emphasis on the wellbeing and happiness of our pupils here at Abercorn School, where we offer a variety of activities to help support children. All our pupils participate in weekly yoga classes from ages two and above, and we encourage mindfulness and meditation for both students and staff. For Children’s Mental Health Week, we are running several wellbeing activities centred around the theme of ‘growing together’. We believe that wellbeing is crucial to living a happy and fulfilled life, and we aspire to empower our students with confidence. Our focus on these activities has a positive impact on the wellbeing of our students, both mentally and physically.”
In terms of new initiatives at Dame Allan’s Schools, Natalie Shaw, vice principal (pastoral), tells us: “In the junior school, ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ has been introduced. This is a timetabled session within each year group to allow pupils to focus on their mental health and explore their emotional wellbeing. The Junior School has also introduced Zumos for children in years 1–6. Zumos is an online wellbeing system that is CAMHS kite-marked and developed as part of the HeadStart project. Children have been listening to the ‘How to be happy’ recordings in form time and practising mindfulness in Wellbeing Wednesday sessions. Children also have access to this resource at home.”
While schools already had support in place prior to the pandemic to help students who may have been struggling with their mental health, the pandemic created additional challenges. Danny Maher, head of outreach support, Aspire Behaviour Management, tells us: “Children have struggled recently with the core principles of stability, consistency and care disrupted. The teacher’s key role is to ensure children feel safe, relaxed and happy, enabling them to access their learning. All behaviour is a form of communication; it is essential that staff listen and understand what this behaviour is showing them.”
Maher adds that emotional distress “may be shown through challenge and negativity, but it is important staff support children through this process to try and understand the root cause”.
In terms of support measures, Maher comments: “Meeting children’s emotional needs can be done throughout the day, helping children identify emotions and promote and support effective strategies to deal with thoughts and feelings in a pro-active way. Key to this is adult relationships that are built over time with trust, positive interactions, and consistency. Supporting children’s emotional wellbeing is paramount to their recovery and progress in their learning and successful transitions.”
“At Solihull, it is normalised for pupils to discuss their feelings, emotions, worries, hopes and fears” – Tom Emmet, Solihull School
Emmet adds: “Our established Wellbeing and Personal Development curriculum has given pupils the opportunity and space to explore their feelings and strategies to support their own wellbeing.
At Solihull, it is normalised for pupils to discuss their feelings, emotions, worries, hopes and fears and their ability to do this has undoubtedly helped them traverse a period of uncertainty and change.”
Emmet continues: “Beyond the classroom, the return to a face-to-face co-curricular programme has been incredibly important to help pupils emotionally and socially on the return to school. Engaging and supporting each other on the sports field, in academic clubs and on stage, has been wonderfully uplifting for pupils this academic year. The importance of school to offer these opportunities for children to connect and engage in activities they love should not be underestimated. For example, our production of Fame this term was a fantastic opportunity for pupils to express themselves and, most importantly, have fun!”
Dame Allan’s “runs mental health awareness meetings with staff continually – looking at early intervention, recognising signs – and has a strong and growing pastoral team”, Shaw tells us, adding: “The school is expanding its team of counsellors, has employed an art psychotherapist and appointed a director of pupil wellbeing.
“Pastoral support is happening in every corner of the school: the dining room, the school office, classrooms, labs, offices and out on the field, by well-trained teaching and support staff who are committed to the safeguarding and wellbeing of all students.”
Recognising the signs of distress
Exploring what mechanisms schools have in place to recognise a student in distress and, crucially, the ability to intervene early on, Emmet tells us: “Solihull staff are excellent at recognising and reporting all signs of concern associated with the pupil. All teaching and non-teaching staff are trained to recognise and report early concerns, which are then triaged and triangulated as appropriate by pastoral, health, welfare and academic colleagues to ensure that effective support is in place.
“Pupils and parents can also self-refer into counselling services and request additional assistance through online platforms. While this has led to an increase in concerns being raised by staff, we see this as a good thing as more pupils are getting the support that they need that might otherwise have been missed.”
Shaw comments: “Dame Allan’s has a multiple of mechanisms in place to identify any child in need including: regular 1:1 mentoring with form teachers; form prefects who work with younger children to spot any worrying signs; teachers trained in mental health first aid; information posters in planners so children can easily see if their experiences and feelings match any of the signs of distress in the posters; pupil wellbeing self-assessment opportunities on form time; early intervention group counselling to address common issues, eg coping with grief or exam anxiety; and various levels of counselling, eg the chaplain for less serious issues.
“Ultimately, the schools’ diamond model means [there are] three small schools within one big one and these small parts allow for teachers to know pupils well so they can spot early signs of distress more readily than in larger schools.”
Increased need for support
In terms of rising numbers of students needing support, Shaw comments, “Young people globally have experienced an extraordinary amount of change over a relatively short space of time. They’ve faced physical restrictions at an age when they crave space to grow, and have been catapulted into a world of remote learning away from their peers. As a result, we’re seeing higher levels of stress among children who have not only been deprived of ordinary social experiences, but who might also have witnessed the intense pressures their parents are under, and perhaps even experienced loss of relatives.”
“Dame Allan’s runs mental health awareness meetings with staff continually – looking at early intervention, recognising signs – and has a strong and growing pastoral team” – Natalie Shaw, vice principal (pastoral), Dame Allen’s Schools
One measure Dame Allan’s has in place is it “speaks to all the pupils in assemblies as well as via PSHE lessons about the need for good mental health and what support there is if [a pupil] feels they need it (eg time to talk day last term)”.
Emmet comments: “It is complex. Undoubtedly, some pupils have required specific, specialised and professional support and staff have been spending more time working in partnership with external agencies. However, it is important to acknowledge that the majority of pupils have adapted incredibly well to the challenges that they have faced and most can attribute positive personal development during the same period. What schools need to understand are the factors that differentiate these different groups of pupils. These lessons can give us further insight in how best to help all pupils.”
We wanted to know if the schools had noticed whether there was a particular age group that has suffered more as a result of the pandemic, and, if so, how schools were supporting these students.
Emmet tells us: “The additional stress and uncertainty associated with the exam year groups has been an additional factor that these pupils have to manage and cope with, which for some has had an impact on their health and wellbeing.
Shaw concurs, adding: “The usual exam anxieties that come in upper school years are still here but perhaps more so than in the past, especially for year 13 who have never sat formal exams. We keep them abreast of all exam changes and regulations and offer lots of subject support.”
Emmet adds: “… all children have had to cope with atypical developmental experiences, and it is important that we as a school continue to monitor and support all pupils and remember that everyone’s lived experience is different. At Solihull, we have always set out to have a flexible pastoral curriculum that can adapt to needs of different year groups and circumstances.”
Greystoke concludes: “The pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the personal development and wellbeing of children of all ages. However, I personally feel that those aged seven and above have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic. This is the age at which friendships become vitally important, and the opportunity to communicate with others of differing background or gender is not easily achievable in lockdown.
“With this in mind, it is unsurprising that children have struggled with their mental health over the last two years. I have witnessed children, particularly some of the older ones, experience real problems with socialisation, remaining calm, and suffering from increased anxiety as a result of the continued disruption to their learning.
“The return to school has helped children start to overcome the impact of lockdown, returning to normality in a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment.”
The impact of the pandemic on pupils’ mental health
● In the UK, mental health disorders are the leading cause of child disability
● Assessment of NHS data has shown that rates of referrals to child mental health services are now at record highs
● 80% of young people with mental health needs agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has made their mental health worse
● Young people’s mental health needs are not supported early enough, and often only when they have reached crisis point
● One in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s five children in every classroom
● 1 in 10 boys aged 5–19 with a mental health condition is excluded in some form from school
Case study: Dame Allan’s Schools
Natalie Shaw, vice principal (pastoral) tells us about a key wellbeing initiative the school set up in response to the pandemic…
In the wake of the pandemic, the school invested in the creation of a wellbeing centre within its Senior School site in Fenham, Newcastle.
‘The Snug’ is a relaxed, peaceful place with comfy sofas, soft music, and therapeutic activities, which sits away from the general hustle and bustle of school life. It is markedly different in appearance to the rest of the school: it not only houses support services operating outside the curriculum, including psychotherapy, counselling, and learning, but also provides an inclusive space where pupils feel safe, heard and understood.
It is designed as a place of refuge for children and is purposefully private, with no windows within the main room, so those who use it don’t feel overlooked or insecure. Its creation is paramount in enabling Dame Allan’s to offer the appropriate care to a wider mix of pupils, who are exhibiting an array of needs at a variety of levels.
In addition, Dame Allan’s has introduced a therapy dog, Heidi. The trained Maltichon is gentle, patient and affectionate in temperament and attends The Snug once a week to interact with pupils.