Guest blog: Jo Stockdale of Well Within Reach discusses child wellbeing and the return to learning

Life feels more normal now and it’s easy to forget just how suddenly and significantly everything changed for all of us back in March. But as we head towards the new term, let’s remember that in Spring, many of our children (and us!) learned that school was too dangerous to attend. Before we can even start to think about ‘catching up’, the first thing that everyone needs to learn is that school is now a safe place to be. Why? Because a brain, whether it belongs to a child or an adult, cannot function well in distress. That’s why supporting wellbeing for children is crucial.

The pressure on both children and teachers to ‘catch up’, and focus on maths and English (with even less time on creative subjects or pro-social time) is counter-productive.
Instinctively we all know that this is not the way you get children ‘back on track’, but there are actually some very good reasons why this approach will have exactly the opposite effect.

Wellbeing for children HAS to come first. It can’t be an afterthought, and it can’t be limited to a couple of days of ‘fun’ in the new term. Children (and grown-ups!) that are well learn well. Here are three things to remember for every practitioner tasked with supporting children – and themselves – back into ‘the new normal’ from September.

1) Wellbeing or Learning is a myth… 
If you’ve ever been so pressured you can’t think straight, walked into a room and can’t remember why, or found yourself frustrated or angry over seemingly trivial issues, there’s a good reason why.

Too much stress (fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc) releases biochemicals in your brain that makes your thinking brain go offline. Chronic stress can result in a brain basically sitting in an acid-bath. In short, stress is one of the most reliable antitheses to learning.

But supporting wellbeing for children does not mean compromising ‘learning time’. There are SO many creative ways to strengthen student wellbeing while children learn.

When learning is fun, when it involves pro-social activities, when children learn through creativity, through play and the outdoors, a wonderful cocktail of healthy biochemicals is released. These neutralise the acidity of stress and speed up neural connectivity.
When children are given the power to make decisions, when their contribution (however small) is recognised, when they feel proud and valued, all of these experiences strengthen children’s sense of competence.  In other words, they HELP THE BRAIN TO LEARN! So, bring brain-balancing activities into school life and keep them there! This is how you create ‘learning readiness’ and nurture student wellbeing – NOT through stress and fear.

2) “You can feel whatever you feel…”
It’s very instinctive to shield and protect children from difficult feelings, especially those who are already somehow vulnerable. Of course, your young people need to feel you’re in control, but it is ok for them to know that the adults around them find things difficult, that we are sad for what was lost, or angry for what we missed.

How else are our children to learn that it’s okay to feel like that too if we don’t model that skill to them, even if it feels a little vulnerable? And it is ok. Unfortunately, our own discomfort with other’s discomfort (especially children’s) means we often short-circuit to variations of ‘don’t be upset’; ‘it will be ok’, etc. But in doing so, we miss the opportunity for acceptance and empathy, which can be cornerstones in helping a person to move through significant change. We do not always need do take those feelings away or solve the problem. Communicating our acceptance – “You can feel whatever you feel” – and then empathising with those feelings is so often enough in itself.

3) Relationships as the Agent for Change
We can be so dedicated to and immersed in our work, or what we are, that we overlook the power of our who we are. But there is great power in our presence, not just our practice… We are, after all, human beings, not ‘humans doings’.
Who are you for the child who is anxious or grieving?
Who are you for the kids who feel more accepted in school than they do at home?
Who are you for the children who just needs to know it’s going to be ok?

Helping children feel they belong is an often overlooked but incredibly powerful aspect of school life. Greet your children properly. Bid farewell to your children properly. Every day.
Knowing and feeling that they’re welcome when they’re with you and missed when they’re not has been sorely missing from their lives for too long. Children don’t care what you know until they know that you care. This simple communication will do wonders to help student wellbeing, and for them to feel safe to be back in school.

Ultimately, the most profound and impactful way we can help to develop any other person is to just be present. To communicate “I’m here with you, I accept you, I support you, and I’m listening”.

Want to learn more about supporting child wellbeing in the return back to school? Jo will be hosting two workshops for teachers and schools to give insights into how the last few months have typically affected children & young people; Their emotional health, social skills, self-esteem & learning capacity. We’ll explore what this means for the transition back into classroom life & what you can do at a practical & actionable level to support this process. Want to know more? Book online HERE