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

Schools leaders in Yorkshire have put in place measures like pet therapy, pandemic poetry classes and sending wellbeing packs home for pupils, to help them cope with increased anxiety during the third lockdown. Ruth Dacey reports.

Pictured, Ashville College Year 7 pupil Emilia Peer-Alton who took her dog Lottie to an online assembly, after more than 80 pupils were encouraged to bring their pet along. Photo credit: Ashville College

Many children have been the hidden victims of the coronavirus pandemic, with further pressures on their mental health since the start of the third lockdown.

While the Prime Minister has warned that March 8 will be the “earliest” date in which the Government could "responsibly" allow schoolchildren to return to the classroom, despite initial plans to reopen schools after the February half-term break.

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With this in mind, and children’s mental health under the spotlight last week, schools across the region have opened up about challenges of coping with increased anxiety from pupils and innovative initiatives put in place - from virtual assemblies where pupils brought along their pet, to afternoon’s away from the screens to help with student's well being.

Laura Jackson, the acting deputy head at Ashville College. Photo credit: Ashville College

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Ashville College, an independent school in Harrogate, has implemented tutor time twice a day for children virtually, to encourage teachers and pupils to talk more confidently about the anxieties and concerns they feel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Laura Jackson, the acting deputy head at Ashville College, said: "Through awareness, engagement and recognition we hope our pupils continue to feel confident to talk about how they are feeling and to recognise it’s ‘okay not to feel okay’.

"Making sure nobody feels lost or alone, we have daily tutorials for form groups to touch base with one another and start their day together."

Jenna Potter, who has been headteacher at Richmond School and Sixth Form College. Photo credit: Richmond School and Sixth Form College.

Elsewhere the school's home learning timetable has been designed to have time in an afternoon away from the screens, so that children and families can do a variety of activities such as baking, reading and walking.

Pupils have taken part in regular assemblies with the college chaplains to explore how they are part of a wider community and how they are supported and how they can support others.

Meanwhile, Year 7 pupils have enjoyed some ‘pet therapy’ to boost their mood as more than 80 pupils brought along their pet to a recent virtual assembly. This included student Emilia Peer-Alton bringing her dog Lottie, while other animals on show were plenty of cats and a number of horses.

Students across the school are also often set tasks with the aim to help their mental wellbeing. This includes going outside and noticing five things that are 'beautiful', contributing positively to a good cause', getting back in touch with a friend they miss', and encouraged to go to bed at a 'good time' and give themselves time to recharge.

Students from The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL) last week had a full snow day when they suspended teaching and encouraged families to spend time together in the snow and have fun. Photo credit: GSAL

"Wellbeing and mental health awareness is an ongoing priority at Ashville," said Ms Jackson, whose main area of focus is pastoral care within the college. "The impact of COVID-19 and the three lockdowns has had a huge impact nationally on children’s mental health, and this is something we are acutely aware of."

On the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, Richmond School and Sixth Form College, a community comprehensive has also brought in a raft of new measures to support the mental health of pupils.

This includes the importance of physical activity being increased with modified online physical education classes in place as well as live drama, dance and music lessons are also ongoing. Often outdoor tasks are also set such as a recent challenge to build a snowman.

The charity alongside the school - Richmond Trustees has also supported students by collaborating with some partnership work with the Harrogate-based charity - Just B Bereavement Support, to offer mental health support for some of the students who are part of the sixth form college.

Outwood Grange Academies Trust, has created a pandemic poetry board.

The school has also placed a focus on the future for Y10 and Y12 students with well-resourced virtual careers classrooms up and running, with students given the opportunity to apply for virtual work experience placements and workshops. Each year, we run work experience for all students in Years 10 and 12 and

Jenna Potter, who has been headteacher at Richmond School and Sixth Form College since 2018, said: "The chance of taking part in a virtual experience helps students to see that we will get through this and that careers and their futures are still so important."

Meanwhile in West Yorkshire The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL) has brought in a host of new measures to support mental health and wellbeing.

Increased specialist counselling provision, has been introduced by the Alwoodley-based independent school, while also creating a website of mental health and well-being resources of trusted sources of information and advice for pupils and parents.

Last week students also had a full snow day when they suspended teaching and encouraged families to spend time together in the snow and have fun.

An online mental hygiene session will run this week at the school and it will cover recognising the challenges of lockdown, finding solutions and coping strategies and ways of seeking help.

Helen Stansfield, senior deputy head at GSAL, whose main focus is pastoral support, said: "These young people have been termed as 'generation grit' and they are developing their resilience, learning new skills and finding out they are probably stronger than they ever thought.

"But everyone’s finding this lockdown hard but we will get through this together and be able to draw on this experience in a positive way."

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.

At primary school level this has included a morning and afternoon online check-in.

"We have built times in the day where all children are able to come together, see each other and continue to socialise and work as a single community, a spokesman from Outwood Grange Academies Trust, said. "We feel that this will reduce the feeling of isolation and will ensure that relationships remain strong once the children return."

Storytelling sessions to finish the day, have also been added in and have been reported to have gone down a "storm" with families.

The spokesman added: "We have seen families join together for this; younger siblings coming into view alongside their brother or sister to hear the story.

"It has built a sense of togetherness - emphasising the fact that though times are hard and different we are here for each other."

While at secondary level the trust has introduced non-screen days for all year groups, with tasks for students to be creative, such as writing pandemic poetry and be active, while carrying out acts of kindness to each other, those in their households and in the community.

This includes the high school Outwood Academy Freeston, in Wakefield, creating wellbeing hampers, including relaxation activities, hot drink sachets, positive motivation cards and more, for the most vulnerable.

And to reward students who have done well the staff at Outwood Academy Adwick, in Doncaster, have been delivering rewards to pupils homes, alongside wellbeing packs. They have also had online pizza time with the principal.

Nearby Netherwood Academy, in Wombwell, part of Astrea Academy Trust, which operates 22 academies in South Yorkshire, has stressed the importance of a series of relaxation exercises for students to undertake.

The academy has also introduced 10-minute screen breaks between all on-line lessons to give students a chance to take a break, get some fresh air.

Shortly there will also be increased tutor time sessions during the week, with a mixture of well-being and fun activities for students.

Jonny Mitchell, principal for Netherwood Academy, said: "We recognise this is a difficult time for our students and we are doing everything possible to support them, balancing academic challenge with all-important pastoral care.

"We are finding as many opportunities as we can to help students work in a way which best suits their situation, introducing additional 'check points' in the school week to keep in touch with their welfare and proactively offering tips designed to support their resilience and wellbeing."

While on the North Yorkshire coast Thomas Hinderwell Primary Academy has started a wellbeing Wednesday where each week families are encouraged to think about their mental health and choose from a variety of activities to help them think positively.

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