How Yorkshire schools have stepped up efforts to help young people's mental health in the classroom

Schools leaders in Yorkshire have put in place measures like yoga classes to ‘trauma awareness’ sessions for pupils to help them cope with increased anxiety since their return earlier this month. Ruth Dacey reports.

Many children have been the hidden victims of the coronavirus pandemic, with further pressures on their mental health since returning to school within the ‘new normal'. The number of schools in England sending home groups of pupils because of Covid-19 incidents is also on the rise.

With this in mind, schools across the region have opened up about challenges of coping with increased anxiety from pupils and innovative initiatives put in place - from yoga classes to green schemes and "trauma awareness," to help with student's well being.

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Richmond School and Sixth Form College, a community comprehensive on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, has implemented a mental health trained pastoral manager for each year group, a family support worker, who is also bereavement counsellor and an open “trauma awareness” policy to encourage teachers and pupils to talk more confidently about the anxieties and concerns they feel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pictured, Jenna Potter, Richmond School and Sixth Form College head teacher. Photo credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe/JPIMediaResell

Head teacher Jenna Potter, told The Yorkshire Post: "Due to coronavirus I would say students have missed their normal day. They've missed the normal day of learning, they've missed their socialising, they've missed their normal friendships and all of the things that go with being a teenager or young person.

Mrs Potter, who has been in the post since January 2018, added: "We’ve very much turned our return to school about being trauma aware rather than trauma led - we’ve made a very big point for staff to use language that is solution focused and positive rather than falling into a trap of using language of deficit - such as talking about learning gaps and and catch-up.

"We know these are a reality but language plays a crucial role in well being for students."

Elsewhere, the importance of physical activity has been increased with modified physical education classes in place, including year 7 and year 9 bringing in their own tennis ball and timing device, with a focus on exercising for "yourself," and more time for pupils to be in the "fresh air."

Richmond School pupils Lili Soley and Will Roberts pictured using the sanitising stations - one of the new safety measures implemented across the North Yorkshire school for the return of students. Photo credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe/ JPI Media Ltd Resell

"We’ve made a big thing about the need to keep PE going in as close a way as we used to - we’ve got a slightly amended provision - but they are still doing active PE every lesson," Mrs Potter said.

New safety measures across the North Yorkshire school have also helped ease anxieties for students will all classrooms rearranged to ensure desks now face forward and sanitation stations in place where students will wash their hands to limit the potential spread of the virus. There is also reduced movement of pupils around schools, with classes and year groups staying in their "bubble" with designated zones.

The charity alongside the school - Richmond Trustees has also supported students who are in financial difficulty to make sure there aren’t any barriers to their learning.

Elaine Walton, chair of Richmond School and Sixth Form College trustees, said: "We recognise that having help with school equipment, stationary or even the more basic needs of meals, uniform and bus fares can reduce anxiety for students and their parents during these very difficult times."

Pictured, pastoral manager Teresa Moss from Richmond School, one of the mental health trained pastoral manager for each year group, speaking to pupils. Photo credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe/ JPI Media Ltd Resell

Mrs Potter said she was pleased there was a 92.9 per cent recorded attendance during the week commencing September 21, as the number of schools in England sending home groups of pupils because of Covid-19 incidents has quadrupled in a week, according to the latest official figures. Based on attendance last Thursday, (September 17) they show four per cent of schools not fully open because of confirmed or suspected cases - up from one per cent the previous week.

This could mean about 900 schools sending home pupils. Overall attendance has also dipped slightly from 88 per cent to 87 per cent.

Mrs Potter, 50, said: "Inevitably attendance is lower because parents are being sensible in the main and checking children or often family members who have a temperature or a cough, therefore they are following guidelines and self isolating.

"So far all the tests for children and family members have been negative, so that is a blessing."

Lee Wilson, chief executive of Outwood Primary, for the Outwood Grange Academies Trust - which operates more than 30 academies across northern England. Photo credit: Outwood Grange Academies Trust

Meanwhile across Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which operates 34 academies across northern England and the East Midlands, including 10 primary academies, mental health has also been a major focus.

The trust has extended a weekly programme developed last year for primary school students around confidence, the importance of mental health and community, which was recently recognised at the national 2020 Pearson National Teaching Awards, to daily “discreet” lessons.

Lee Wilson, chief executive of Outwood Primary, said the classes with a focus on mental health had been increased in the timetable due to consequences of the pandemic.

He said: “Children are social creatures and they have been used to all their life time being around their peer group… To actually have six months where you remove from them the distance that has been in - that children have never experienced before the youngest children - it can be very hard for them to understand.

“We really prioritised specific times where we put discrete sessions in around social and emotional mental health.”

“The programme is about building children’s resilience, confidence and independence - so actually feeling connected and part of the community.

Outwood Primary Academy Ledger Lane is one of the 10 primary academies, run by Outwood Grange Academies Trust. Photo credit: Outwood Grange Academies Trust.

“Weekly sessions where we explored being part of a team are now being run as a discrete daily session because of how important they are for students wellbeing.

“We needed to do something that we have done well in the past, differently so there was an element of familiarity - that brought the security that children need at this moment in time.”

“Last year we prioritised mental health and really that expertise that we developed across the staff and the schools has really come into its own now- in terms of facing these circumstances that no-one could have planned for.

Extra measures have been taken across the ten primary schools including outdoor sinks built into all the playgrounds, hand sanitizer stations installed inside and visitors signing in with track and trace requirements in place, in the event of any positive cases.

Mr Wilson added with positive cases for coronavirus increasing in schools across the UK, parents should have confidence with the “rigorous and robust” plans the academy trust has in place if this becomes an eventuality in any of its schools.

Mr Wilson said: “We are saying to parents have confidence in the systems we have in place - if we do get a positive case - the work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that we have a really rigorous tracking of any potential person who might have had what is defined as close contact - it is really robust.

“I do feel that the plans we have put in place for that eventuality did work really well.”

To help cope with potential staff shortages across Outwood Academies Trust, 33 extra staff have been recruited which can be deployed if necessary.

Julie Slater, the chief executive of Outwood Secondary, added the biggest challenge for schools going forward could be a potential “staffing deficit” and the impact on learning for students if cases continue to rise.

She said: "The challenge will be keeping schools open as if the cases continue to rise, the impact on staffing could be the biggest thing.

"We have over recruited during lockdown… because we anticipated that if we don’t have staff in schools, then that is the thing that will inevitably close the school from a health and safety perspective.

"We made the executive decision that that is what we would invest in - with the view for children to have specialist teachers in front of them for as long as we are able to do that.

"And to plug any gaps as they appear and cover for absent colleagues, but also to be able to support those who have returned to school and make up for lost learning that has happened since March."

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