Supporting post-pandemic SEND mental health

Last week, Axcis sponsored the National SEND Conference and as such, I was able to go along and sit in on many of the discussions and seminars taking place. What became apparent very quickly was the importance of supporting mental health in schools post-pandemic.

How has COVID affected child mental health?

Firstly, although I am talking about post-pandemic support, I am all too aware that we are not out of the woods yet. With a Delta Variant working it’s way around the country, and 10% of those hospitalised with it having had two vaccinations, it is clear that this thing is not over yet. But we can hope that school closures are now a thing of the past and that schools can move to a “post pandemic” mindset when teaching and supporting our children and young people.

At the National SEND Conference, statistics were shared which suggested that there was a big split in the effect COVID had had on the mental health of our young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). About 50% reported experiencing a negative impact due to changes in the way schools were run or services were delivered (or not delivered as the case may be). Some families felt isolated, unsupported and as a result experienced a negative impact on their mental health. This, in turn has led to a huge increase in referrals to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). Sadly, the service is not able to cope with such an influx of need and as a result, waiting lists are long and many children and young people are being turned away altogether.

Where can they turn for help?

It is the front line teaching and support staff in schools, as well as the families themselves who have been left to pick up the pieces. But how can they help and what support can be offered?

Parents – reach out so you don’t feel alone

Parents who feel overwhelmed by the situation may have a tendency to close off from others, looking inward or trying to handle things by themselves when external support feels limited. However, it is important to remember that you are not in this alone. In fact, by discussing your feelings with school staff, you are offering them the opportunity to help – and most people who go into the education profession DO want to help you. So let them know what is bothering you, how it’s making you feel and how you might imagine a way out of the mire.

School staff – listening is crucial

When we are looking to rebuild the mental health of our young people, taking time to listen and understand the concerns of our students, parents and other stakeholders is absolutely crucial. If we can’t understand what is causing the deterioration of mental health, then we don’t have much hope of helping to reverse it. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we find time to talk. Feeling heard can be hugely therapeutic in itself so if you are a teacher or school leader, do not try to “solve” problems at this stage, simply listen to students, parents and carers with empathy and understanding. Use the strategy of repeating back to them what they have just said (in your own words) to show you are hearing and understanding what they are saying. ASK what support they would like to receive – it all helps in the relationship building process and in finding a way to move forward. Do not make promises you can’t keep as this will undermine the trust you are building. Simply listen with warmth and empathy.

Follow up

After initial conversations, keep the lines of communication open. Look for ways to create further trust between students, parents and school staff. We are all human, after all and the positive impact of building an honest, open and trusting relationship is such an important step on the road to recovery.

My own story

My own son has struggled with his behaviour at home and at school. The traditional rewards and sanctions were not cutting it and his behaviour remained erratic, causing him to experience social and emotional problems at school and sometimes at home. Constant punitive measures affected his self esteem and seemed to be making the situation worse, not better! But things started to turn a corner when he had more child-led play time at home with myself and his dad, and when his teacher took the time to build a closer relationship with him. Regular home-school communication meant that we could quickly identify where he needed support and offer him this rather than constant sanctions for getting in trouble. I’m pleased to report that by doing these simple things, everyone concerned with the education of my son is happier – and he is progressing well and building his self confidence and self esteem back up. Where policies and procedures failed, a bit of human connection is succeeding, so I am a huge advocate of this approach!

What if school staff are too busy?

Despite having a legal duty of care, some school staff may simply be too busy to take the time to listen to students, parents and carers. If this is the case, perhaps schools should consider hiring a learning mentor or an additional member of support staff for help. This person can be hired specifically to spend time building this relationship with students and parents. There really is nothing like feeling someone has your back, especially when times are tough.

Are you seeking SEND work or staff?

If you’re looking for a SEND teaching or support job in England or Wales, why not register with Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists? Or perhaps you need to recruit staff for your school or provision? If so, why not take a look at the Axcis Website, or get in touch today to find out how we can help?

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