Supporting pupils who have to self-isolate

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The emotional implications of individual pupils or entire social bubbles being forced to self-isolate should not be dismissed. Shahana Knight looks at how we can manage and support the emotional wellbeing of children who are ‘sent home’


After almost six months of lockdown, families have returned to school again. It felt like finally there would be some structure and some consistency after a long period of uncertainty. How wrong we were…

Within the first two days of term, pupils and staff in class bubbles began to test positive for Covid-19 and headteachers had no choice but to send children and groups of children home to self-isolate.

In fact, the second week back and I received an email to say my own daughter could not to return to school the next day because someone in her bubble had tested positive – she was asked to stay at home for two weeks.

As I write now, almost every school I work with has at least one bubble “out of action”.

My concern is this: how many times can a child or a bubble be sent home before the impact of that becomes a risk to their mental health or wellbeing. There are some very real implications that we need to consider.


Feeling unsafe

For many vulnerable children, school is a place of safety – somewhere that offers consistency, warmth, food and boundaries. All of this helps them to manage the impact of adverse life experiences outside of school.

Schools work hard to ensure that vulnerable children can rely on them to provide this sense of safety and know that, for some children, it can take several years to build up that relationship and trust.

The numbers of children dealing with trauma or adverse life experiences has rocketed during lockdown, with the NSPCC reporting a record 8,287 calls related to physical and emotional abuse and neglect in May alone. It is evident that some children need that security from schools now more than ever.

As such, it is vital we consider the emotional implications of suddenly telling children that they cannot come back to school for two weeks. And if their bubble is isolated on more than one occasion then this becomes even more crucial.


Disengagement?

Children who are sent home more than once may be at risk of disengaging – maybe from their learning and maybe from their relationships.

Our natural reaction when dealing with stress and repetitive trauma is to find coping mechanisms. One way for children to cope with this inconsistency of schooling and the emotional implications is to stop being emotionally connected to it.

Imagine being excited to go to school but then told you at the last minute that you cannot. Or trying hard at maths with a teacher who seems to believe in you, and then you do not see them for two weeks.

Some children may stop investing their emotional energy in wanting to come to school or wanting to learn. This is a very real possibility for those children who already struggle with issues of resilience and coping with stress.

You might find children returning from isolation are less inclined to get involved, to be enthusiastic about learning, or to make relationships. Some may even begin to refuse to come to school. This will not be misbehaviour, this will be because they are trying to find a way to cope or protect themselves.


Disruption?

When children feel safe they are able to challenge themselves, problem-solve and take risks. This is because they are working from their rational brain – their thinking brain. This part of the brain is only active when we feel safe and happy.

When we feel threatened we begin to work from our reptilian brain, which is in charge of keeping us safe and therefore results in more protective behaviours, like running away, getting angry, or shutting down.

Therefore, the more stress hormones, the less children can retain information and challenge themselves to take risks with their learning.

So when children are caught up in the chaos of being suddenly sent home, you may notice they struggle to engage with their remote learning. They may appear to have stopped trying or to find work difficult. It is important to remember that this is not a result of a lack of academic ability or misbehaviour, but will likely stem from their emotional state.


So, what can you do?

First, it is important that you put the emotional and mental health of the children at the core of everything you do. Acknowledge that children who are struggling with their emotional wellbeing cannot learn. To help them achieve academically this year, they must first feel safe and emotionally secure. How can we do this?


Teach virtually

As much as is practicably possible, consider teaching virtually rather than sending home packs of work. Virtual learning will help maintain a feeling of consistency for the children (and parents) and offer another version of being in the classroom.

Set up sessions for the children throughout their day with their teachers and teaching assistants. Check-in with each child before the lesson begins and play some connection games like “Everybody look left, everybody look right”. This will help create a feeling of connection.

I know one school doing this who is asking all children to wear their uniforms during these calls. This is a brilliant way to extend the classroom and to help children create clear boundaries in their minds between school and home.


Teach a wellbeing curriculum

When children are in school, ensure you have built in opportunities for them to share their feelings. It might be that they have just come back from isolation or that they have heard about other children being sent home – there is a lot for them to process right now and it is likely that children are feeling overwhelmed.

Teaching them the skill of self-reflection will develop emotional intelligence and encourage heathy coping mechanisms. Start a feelings journal with the class, where at the start of each day they have an opportunity to draw or write down how they are feeling.

Give them 20 minutes to do this each day. Tell them that this book is not going to be marked and does not have to be perfect, but is somewhere they can off-load and express their feelings.

Tell them it will help them make sense of how they feel and will help them feel better. You might even want to offer to read their diary entries if they would like you to. You could then leave little positive comments at the bottom of their entries. This activity is also something that can be done during isolation too.

Another suggestion would be to have regular lessons prepared in which children can learn about, share and reflect on their own experiences and feelings. Use resources to help prompt discussions. This will help the children to learn to identify their feelings and will generate safe discussions without it feeling too scary for pupils.

Make sure you really listen to the children when they share their own experiences. You do not need to offer advice or a solution, just show them you care by listening. Two of my favourite resources are the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse and the video Inside Out: Guessing Feelings (see further information – you can also find two free lesson plans using these resources on my website, see below).

Focusing on a wellbeing curriculum will help children to develop empathy for one another, feel connected and create a feeling of togetherness wherever they are at school, which in turn will help to rebuild that feeling of trust.


Conclusion

We are all still working in the unknown and that can be unsettling for everyone. It can feel like your hands are tied and you do not know what to do. But what you do know is that the children come first, as always. You do know that you can be a caring, understanding empathetic person who can help every child you teach to notice their feelings and make sense of them.

The real lesson here is teaching them how to manage stress, how to cope with challenges in life, and how to believe in themselves in the face of adversity. You can be the one who makes a difference. In the end, that is what matters most.


  • Shahana Knight is director at TPC Therapy, a mental health service for children. Some of the suggestions in this article have been taken from Shahana’s wellbeing curriculum. You can download some free samples and lesson plans at www.tpctherapy.co.uk and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/2yRMvdf


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