Cultivating Pupil Resilience: Pathways Beyond a Pandemic
Coming to terms with the ‘Coronacoaster’ The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has been characterised by a challenging period of unprecedented national lockdowns affecting work, family life, and education.
Over the course of the pandemic, the mental health research community has been monitoring the impact of the restrictions on children and young people. Researchers have noted that primary school children’s mental health has
been adversely impacted more than that of secondary age pupils (Co-Space, 2021). Moreover, children with SEN/ND, those from lower income households, or homes where domestic violence is present, have been particularly vulnerable throughout.
Happily, average mental health difficulties among primary and secondary school aged children appear to have decreased again, as schools reopened and restrictions started easing. In general terms, most children and adults have coped, and some have even thrived. It would
be wrong to assume all pupils across a school community have been adversely affected.
The Big Picture: pre-pandemic
As we reflect on the impact of the pandemic on school communities, it is worth placing young people’s mental health difficulties in context. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that half of all psychiatric disorders were diagnosed before the age of 14, with 75% of all mental illness starting by the age of 24 (Foulkes, 2021). Prior to the pandemic, the UK was witnessing rising rates of anxiety and depression (particularly among older teen girls) and a decrease in positive body image in young people (NHS Digital, 2017). There was evidence of growing sleep deprivation among teens, increases in levels of self-harm and a decline in boys’ overall wellbeing (HBSC, 2020).
In short, the mental health of children and young people has been on the national watch list for some time. Adolescence has always been characterised by psychological change, challenge, and identity flux, though young people generally cope well with the storms and stresses of this particular period of their lives.
Next Steps for Schools Schools have, and always will, play a critical role in supporting children and young people in terms of their resilience, mental health, and wellbeing. As we step into the academic year 2021/2022, it may be helpful to consider some optimal ways of supporting pupil resilience moving forward.
Watch Your Language
The pandemic has generated headlines and new terms designed to denote e damage done in terms of educational progress or mental health. They might be snappy, but press headlines about ‘recovery curriculums’ and ‘lost generations’ can convey a hopelessness that is unhelpful to young people.
This type of language implies that things are irretrievably lost. It also implies alack of heterogeneity in young people’s experience that simply isn’t accurate (Foulkes, 2021).
As school communities, we should seek to use more positive and hopeful language consistently, both across the school, and on an individual level, and pay attention to the language that pupils use to describe both themselves and the situations they find themselves in. It may prove fruitful to draw pupils’ attention to the relationship between language and personal identity. By modelling a prudent approach to the use of language to describe thoughts or emotional experiences, we serve young people well.
Nudge pupils towards retrospection
Retrospection can breed resilience. Before pupils reset for the next school year, ask them to reflect on some ‘Covid-keeps’ based on their experiences throughout the pandemic. What did they learn about themselves that they didn’t know before? Which habits do they wish to keep? What do they now value more? Which insights will inform their future outlook or decisions? This reflective exercise can prompt a helpful reframing of the pandemic and initiate a sense of gratitude, which in itself can nudge them towards recognising their own resilience and personal strengths
Help pupils set ‘small achievable goals
Retrospection can also spark an interest in future goals. We know that goal-setting and a sense of purpose in life are important pillars of mental health (Reynolds and Parkinson, 2020). What can you do to encourage pupils to actively articulate goals? How can you help them to mark their own progress? In advance of the new school year, can they be encouraged to set termly targets, not just in terms of academic attainment, but also goals connected to sleep hygiene, physical exercise, honing social skills, achieving balance when it comes to their digital diet, accessing new experiences, and increasing acts of kindness towards others? Can they be encouraged to do more of what they enjoy? We know that helping young people to engage with valued activities in different areas of their life can increase rewards and reduce symptoms of depression, so attune to what they are interested in and encourage them to pursue it (Brett et al., 2020).
“In the wake of the pandemic and particularly in the next academic year, the plea from psychiatrists is that schools should work hard to amplify activities that directly boost pupil voice, self-esteem, self-worth and that drive them towards meaningful participatory engagement”
Resist the desire to ‘mollycoddle
Post-pandemic, it is understandable that parents, carers and educators may want to psychologically ‘mollycoddle’ children and young people. As counterintuitive as it may seem, research suggests that this approach isn’t helpful or effective. Over-protectiveness may contribute to poorer mental health outcomes, as it denies young people the opportunity to puzzle things out and may reduce their self-esteem or compromise self-belief. Anxiety can often be exacerbated by adults overly reassuring or telling young people that everything will be ok (Creswell, 2019). Instead, adults should coach, nudge, scaffold conversations, actively listen and model courage where they can. Certainly, in the case of anxiety, young people need to be educated about the difference between ‘normal’ worries and wobbles, as opposed to problematic, paralysing anxiety, which inhibits them from doing what they love or enjoy. The latter may require clinical attention, whilst the former is part and parcel of everyday human experience. This distinction is key.
Remember how powerful you are
School staff should be conscious of how important staff-pupil relationships are to pupil wellbeing and resilience. Value the important contribution that you make each day, on an individual level, through simple, everyday exchanges with young people and appreciate that teacher-pupil relationships can be an important protective asset when it comes to pupil resilience. Research shows that a supportive school climate and having trusted adults at school are incredibly important to young people’s mental health. Indeed, school climate has been found to account for 30-50% of differences in children’s mental health outcomes, whilst school size, gender balance, ethnic minority proportion, and socio-economic disadvantage account for only 1% or 2% (Patalay, 2020)
Make sure that pathways to support are crystal clear
In any school community, it is critically important for all pupils to understand and be able to articulate precisely how they can access support, if required, and who is ‘there for them’ in real terms. Mapping out these support pathways is an easy yet enormously effective strategy that can keep young people safe. In times of crisis or difficulty, it can be challenging to recall numbers, email addresses or even the names of staff members who could offer support. All school staff should also be familiar with pathways to both internal and specialist support (Bignardi, et al., 2021). In terms of auditing how well supported pupils feel, schools should remember that young people can and should play a leading role in this process. They can also provide useful insights into potential barriers to accessing support among their peers. Longer term, peer-led mental health initiatives can increase perception of self-efficacy and autonomy along pupils, both of which relate strongly to the idea of resilience (Dray et al., 2017).
Stay alert to post-Covid ‘red flags’
At the time of writing, there are two emerging issues related to children and young people’s mental health that are gaining researchers’ attention and which schools should stay alert to. The first is a rise in eating disorders, which appeared to coincide with the return to school in Autumn 2020. Particular stressors associated with the pandemic conflated to form what one expert describes as a ‘perfect storm’. These stressors included high levels of social anxiety, isolation, the normalisation of restrictive eating in family life, a fear of obesity, a lack of peer support, and concomitant low motivation and mood (Nicholls, 2021). An additional issue that has been observed since January, 2021, is a surge of ‘severe tics and tic-like attacks’, particularly in teenage girls (Heyman, et al., 2021). The same picture has emerged internationally (ACAMH, 2021).
Resources to support your school community
If you are wondering about next steps, wish to learn more, and be able to access resources that can meaningfully address some of issues outlined above, look no further than <www.tooledupeducation.com>. From Autumn 2021, your school community will be able to access hundreds of resources designed to empower parents, carers, and educators to apply research-informed solutions in everyday life. ‘Tooled Up’ resources relevant to this article are: a resource sheet on ‘tics’, interviews with experts in adolescent mental health, Professor Shirley Reynolds and Dr Dasha Nicholls (with accompanying notes), resources for pupils (relating to transition, wellbeing, mental toughness, resilience and managing anxiety). If you have any questions please contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.