Supporting Schools After Lockdown 2/7: Staff Mental Health
Children don’t need their teachers to be heroes as they return to classrooms following the Covid-19 school closures. It’s much more important to be ‘good enough’. In the second part of her blog series supporting the reopening of schools, Emma Connor, child psychotherapist and director of Your Space Therapies, explains why the mental health of school staff must come first – and shares three simple ideas for helping teachers to emotionally self-regulate.
In my last blog Supporting Schools After Lockdown 1/7: Rupture and Repair, I identified the huge rupture that has occurred in our school communities due to the impact of Covid-19, and the duty of mental health professionals to stand alongside school staff in bringing children back into the fold therapeutically.
Never before has the ‘oxygen mask’ metaphor been more relevant: we must look after the school staff if they are going to be able to nurture the children. Teaching is arguably one of the most pressurised and emotionally draining jobs of our time and the need for mental health support, or changes to the job, have now multiplied tenfold due to lockdown.
We need to support teachers to emotionally regulate themselves. So, as therapists, what can we offer the school staff?
Encourage a planned daily holiday
We know that the key to ‘good vagal tone’ and regulation of emotions is to have regular breaks. When school staff open their doors again after the school closures, they will be very busy. It is important to encourage them to take a ‘daily holiday’, and plan this into their week in the same way they would plan a lesson. The daily holidays should be 20-30 minutes long and include something relaxing and restful that they enjoy. You may need to remind them that photocopying does not count!
Explore their own ‘good enough’
In a later blog I will be exploring the true qualities of resilience. This is often skewed in our society and school communities, and there is a lot of focus on the quality of robustness and strength as the focal point of resilience.
What is often forgotten is that a vital part of good quality resilience is the ability to be vulnerable and seek support. We need to encourage teachers to access peer support, and support from us in order to look after themselves. Only then are they going to be able to hold the emotions the children will flood the school with as they re-enter the community.
I always encourage teachers to consider what is their ‘good enough’ in the same way Winnicott talks about ‘good enough parenting’. Developing mantras around this concept can be empowering. It allows them to be present, be human and not feel they have to fulfil a hero status. They can be so much to a child, just by being ‘good enough’.
Introduce peer supervision
It is useful to share the experience we have as therapists in supervision. Teach the teachers the value of having a peer support system where active listening is the core communication tool. They could use a simple formula of asking one staff member to tell the group an experience they want to bring for 5-10 minutes, and asking the group to feedback using the language, “I heard you are feeling… sad / exhausted / frustrated / worried…” rather than moving straight to advice or reflecting on the experience in regards to their own. This gets the empathy juices going and, as we know from neuroscience, empathy is one amazing way to boost the production of oxytocin, enabling us to feel calm, connected and well regulated.
As experts in child mental health, we know that an emotionally well parent can best support a developing child. Let’s apply the same thinking to teachers. Much of their work on re-opening schools will, and should, be about nurture, reconnection and processing loss. By supporting school staff with self-care, we can be their oxygen mask so they can provide the same for the children.
Your Space Therapies Limited offers counselling and psychotherapy for children and families, in person and online during the pandemic. For more information about their online mental health conferences, specifically designed to support children, professionals and school communities with emotional recovery from Covid-19, visit www.yourspacetherapies.org.