In It Together
Who or what inspires you? I was asked this question in a recent interview and found that it wasn’t simple to answer. When I considered it, I realised that, in the main, the people who have inspired (and continue to inspire) me are supportive childhood teachers.
It sticks with me that, when I was 15, my drama teacher sent me a postcard on the last day of the school play to say that he believed in me. I recall my French teacher modelling an appreciation of language and the art of writing economically. My English teacher, who had actually written a book, told us that every one of us had one inside of us too and my primary school teacher would send me on little errands around the school, making me feel like a V.I.P. I remember an Italian teacher who whetted my appetite for European culture and a physics teacher whose personal anecdotes about university life made me consider adventuring beyond my home town.
We know that the relationship between teachers and pupils is of significant importance. It is a protective asset when it comes to children’s resilience and, when positive, it can be an enormously important lever for their self-esteem, their ability to cope with stress and pressure and their desire to aim high.
From 8th March, teachers and school staff have been welcoming children back into classrooms. Mental health researchers anticipate that this will have a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and mood. Being part of a school community is an additional protective asset for children and young people; the sense of identity that comes from being part of something larger, matters.
School belonging stems from feeling valued as a member of the community; having a chance to contribute, be heard and understood, and being given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. It is cultivated through all those morning assemblies, school plays, songs, sports matches, clubs, competitions and cheerful, daily interactions that occur between school staff and pupils. It also stems from the degree of support that pupils enjoy from their peers. Unfortunately, in the UK, perceived levels of support from classmates is significantly lower than average, especially for young people with lower levels of affluence. Girls also feel less well supported by their peers than boys (HBSC and University of Glasgow, 2021).
With this in mind, and given the particular stresses faced by many children over lockdown, let’s encourage our children to be good friends to their classmates this term; supportive, kind, collaborative and good-humoured. Often, parents dread how other children will treat their children, but let’s start at the beginning, ensuring that our own offspring return to school with a strong desire to contribute to the school community positively.
When we pass the baton back to teachers, it doesn’t mean we drop the ball when it comes to children’s mental health, wellbeing or learning. Teachers can’t do all the heavy-lifting in this regard, nor can they always solve friendship issues or ensure that children are kind to one another. Parental influence, family values and attitudes all feed into school culture and ethos, so we need to play our part.
Whilst many pupils return to school with a sense of joy, we also need to remember that lots of children and young people will have experienced loss over lockdown.
Even pre-Covid, we know that 92% of young people will experience the death of someone significant to them before the age of 16 and up to 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil on their register at any given time (Child Bereavement Network).
School communities, peer friendships and relationships between school staff and pupils all play a crucial role in helping young people to cope following the death of a loved one. Trauma, grief and loss can challenge a child’s sense of self, personal and social identity; turning worlds upside down and undermining their sense of security and stability. Any child who has experienced loss will need to make sense of what has happened to them and this takes time.
They may need to tell and retell their story, something that educators, loving family members and friends can facilitate. The research tells us that children’s grief can look quite different from adult grief. As psychotherapist, Julia Samuel MBE, notes in her book, Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, children will “jump in and out of puddles”. At times, they will look and sound ok, but at others, they may be tearful and low.
Grief is a process that requires respect. During periods of grief, the matrix of children’s supportive relationships, both at school and home, come together to provide a web of comfort. There is no time limit on grief. It is deeply personal and often exhausting. As adults who care for children, we should always be unafraid to ‘reach in’. In the event of loss, we should try to facilitate peer support, talk openly about what has happened, answer any question (no matter how big or small) and create as much routine, consistency and calm as we can.