Teaching emotional health in school during the pandemic

Secondary teacher and educational consultant David Hodgkinson discusses how to develop emotional health in schools, as some pupils return to the classroom and others remain at home

The recent partial return to school has presented a raft of challenges for children, families and teachers. Many of those going back have siblings still at home, while teachers and parents are experiencing a range of emotions, from relief at regaining some semblance of normality and structure, to deep anxiety about the safety and wellbeing of all concerned.

Such feelings are part of the new regime. Logistical challenges have led to considerable amounts of work and numerous changes in individual schools. As a result, for teachers and pupils alike, school being the same but different will lead to worries, triggered in part by recalling how things should be based on how they used to be. Emotional health, as well as physical, is key to a successful return to school; and, indeed, to any education.

Helpful steps to put into practice

Teachers are taking the necessary distancing and hygiene precautions, which help to reassure both themselves and their pupils. In addition, we need to work with those in our care to take ownership of how they behave towards one another.

A partnership agreement, often used in coaching, is a great way to do this. Teachers can ask their respective classes what characteristics they would like to see in themselves and those around them, and how they are going to demonstrate and develop such traits in their time together. The class – teacher included – can then create and sign a poster to illustrate what has been agreed.

Key characteristics can be linked to actions and practical steps to reinforce them. It may be helpful to present examples of people who have faced challenges – such as Albert Einstein, Madam C. J. Walker or Frida Kahlo – to deepen everyone’s understanding of the chosen attributes.

Such a method of working not only helps with behaviour and stress levels, but also constitutes a partnership between all involved in learning. Teachers and pupils together agree to enact a programme based on mutual respect, and thereby develop an understanding of how character affects relationships between people and can strengthen the educational environment so that it is supportive and inclusive.

In this regard, it is vital that the teacher is party to the discussions and agreement. Their role then becomes a matter of upholding standards and supporting characteristics to which everyone has agreed, rather than imposing an external set of rules. This method can also be used to widen the focus from Covid-19 to wider questions of how classes would like to operate and what characteristics would be beneficial under these new conditions. It provides a remarkable opportunity to consider a fundamental element of education: the teaching of character.

Building character strengths to improve emotional health

In the past, forcibly pushing students out of their comfort zone was seen by some as character building. With good reason, such methods find little favour today. However, the reality of the situation our young people are facing means that, as educators, we need to provide them with the necessary guidance and examples to help them to develop their characters.

Today, as never before, kindness, care for others and respect are sorely needed. As educators, we can teach these both through our own actions and the environment we create in our classes; but, for our pupils to grow in understanding, they need more than experience – they need to combine such experiences with opportunities to reflect on their significance.

Such opportunities for reflection can be provided by learning about how noteworthy individuals – such as Florence Nightingale, Eva Perón or Confucius – demonstrated these characteristics and carried them into action in the wider world. Positive character traits lead to a positive environment. If, for example, we are kind to one another, the mental health of everyone improves; this kindness is a service to others, and will be repaid in turn as we live in a more considerate, more enjoyable world.

The power of practising gratitude

Gratitude is a great starting point for developing a fuller sense of wellbeing. People such as Louis Armstrong and Helen Keller exemplify such gratitude through their lives, showing how it can be a powerful force in challenging times. Intentionally practising gratitude can also improve our mental and emotional health.

Here’s how it works.

Our minds easily drift to anything which is wrong: presented with a white wall with one minor blemish, for example, we notice the blemish rather than the expanse of perfect white. This habit has its place in keeping us safe from danger, but can easily become destructive. So, we need to train our brains – and that takes practice. Teachers could start the day with a simple gratitude exercise, inviting children to name something in front of them for which they are grateful.

Asking them for something in the moment could avoid drawing out differences between the children – one being grateful for the very expensive toy they have just been given will hardly help others. If the children cannot identify anything, the teacher can speak of something for which they are grateful, perhaps the company of the children, or even having air to breathe.

This practice of gratitude might also be accompanied by a simple awareness exercise of connecting with the moment through the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Teachers and pupils can simply be asked to be still, feel their feet on the floor, the air on their faces, and then taste, smell, see and listen. Each sense should be taken in turn for as long as seems appropriate. The key is to observe what is there, without getting caught up in the ideas running around in our minds.

For teachers, this is a great way to step out of their worries and anxieties, as it offers a greater sense of perspective. For pupils, too, it can help to re-centre them, bringing them back to enjoying what is around them and thereby cultivating a sense of focus and purpose.

The gratitude and awareness exercises are two examples of practical ways to help in developing that resilience. They can be combined or practised separately, at the beginning and end of each day, or more frequently.

Inspiration from those who have led the way

The word ‘resilience’ is often mentioned in this context of emotional health. Household names such as Einstein, Charles Darwin and Emmeline Pankhurst all found it within themselves to persevere. In these times of uncertainty we need to cultivate such a spirit, but also need to know how to do this and see why it is important. Studying people who have faced significant challenges yet gone on not only to survive, but also to succeed in changing the world for the better, offers a sense of hope and inspiration.

Kindness, generosity of spirit and determination all have significant roles to play in enabling us to take on the challenges we face. Marie Curie, for example, endured considerable hardship and yet remained focused on her wider goal, making huge contributions to medicine. Mahatma Gandhi endured prison and forced labour in his fight for India’s independence, but never lost his respect for the humanity in everyone. Learning about such people can inspire us – and those in our care – to dig deeper as we face the challenges of the current situation.

The generation in our care need an education which will enable them to work effectively with one another, and to remain confident and purposeful within themselves. A clear focus on character would be an excellent step in the right direction.

David Hodgkinson is a consultant at Amazing People Schools


  • Dr Jane M.Mullins

    What an eloquent article that provides teachers with the tools required to help pupils and themselves alike in moving forward in these difficult times, and for beyond. Drawing from Eastern philosophical practices and coaching skills David Hodgkinson provides staff with straightforward ways to help build resilience in not only their pupils but themselves to, I like the examples of key historical characters to exemplify this.

  • Therese

    Insightful,practical and achievable.
    So helpful

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