Coronavirus: 7 ways to help pupil mental health

School closures might be harder or some students than others. Play therapist, Roisin Robinson, offers some suggestions of ways to promote positive mental health

Tes Reporter

DfE mental health scheme has been piloted in schools

Looking after our mental health is just as important as learning our multiplication tables. Learning will happen more successfully if we feel good about ourselves.

Many teachers know this well, as they have spent years helping support students with either mental health problems, or special educational needs, that impact their wellbeing, so they can still do well in school.

With schools closing, this support has rapidly had to become digital, in the form of emails or phone calls. Many teachers may have never done anything like this. So how can they maintain good mental health support without being in school on a daily basis?

There are several useful and highly beneficial ideas that teachers can pass on to students that can help them maintain their mental health and wellbeing during these challenging times.

1. Draw a circle of control

At the moment students might feel as if they have no control over much of what is happening, but the truth is if we look at things closely there are lots of things we do have control over.

If we can encourage students to focus on these things, it can help us feel a bit better.  

Ask students to create their own circle of control, where you draw what you can control on the inside and what you cannot on the outside, so they can think of all the things they can control right now.

2. Don’t hesitate to meditate

Meditation is a great way of clearing our minds of worries.  You can find great meditations on YouTube or apps such as Calm. They can talk you through on how to relax your body and mind. You may want to do this before bedtime when you’re chilling out before you go to sleep.  

You can also use grounding techniques, such as using your five senses. Look around the room. Use your fingers as you count up your five senses. Look for something you can…

  • See. Focus on it. It could be a pencil on the desk. Think of what colour it is. Ask yourself if it is blunt or in need of a sharpen.
  • Hear. What can you hear? It could be the clock on the wall. Someone cutting the grass outside. Birds singing.  Listen in carefully.
  • Touch. It could be the seat you are sitting on or the clothes you are wearing. Think about the textures or what it is made of. Are your feet firmly on the ground? This will help you feel grounded. 
  • Smell. Can you smell food being cooked? Or the smell of your washing powder? Or someone might be wearing perfume. 
  • Taste. Can you still taste your toothpaste? Or the meal you just ate? What was the last thing you ate?  Was it sweet or savoury? 

3. Look what I’ve been doing

Because your students have got a long stretch of time ahead of them where they’re going to be stuck indoors at home they run the risk of feeling bored.

The danger of this when a child already has mental health problems is that they might find themselves getting into unhealthy routines, or dwelling on negative thoughts.

Set your students the task of keeping a journal. Inside they can write down the things that they have been doing, and stick photos or draw pictures. 

The more they feel that they are achieving things with their time, the more positive they will feel about themselves, and the more resilient they will become. 

In their journal, students can keep a set of tasks to challenge themselves each day. These tasks should be simple and achievable, for example: make bed, brush teeth, feed pets.

Children should tick off every task every day. This kind of physical reminder of success will help them feel like their day has meaning. 

4. I miss you so much 

Children may have heard words such as ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ but not really understood what they mean.   

It is important that either their teachers or parents explain that these words mean staying inside our homes as much as possible so we don’t spread the virus or catch it from other people.  

As a consequence of self-isolation and social distancing, children may not be seeing some of their family or friends for a while. Understandably this can lead to confusion and unhappiness.

It’s really important that teachers and parents emphasise to children that this is in order to stay safe – and it is not for forever!  

An activity that can help children is writing letters to friends and family, and making plans for what can be done when we can leave the house again. It is also helpful to reminisce about happy memories when they did see their friends.

Play the ‘When we can go out I will…’ game. Ask parents to take turns in adding to a descriptive story of things they might do, and people they might go and see, once social distancing rules have been relaxed. Older children might want to write a description themselves. 

It also helps to rephrase these thoughts to ourselves, and model that for our students and children. Instead of thinking: 'how awful I have to stay indoors' we reframe it to say 'how lucky I am to have somewhere safe to stay'.

5. Rating your mood

It’s important that students know it is okay to feel scared or confused- or to even feel angry at the coronavirus. It is really annoying!

So it’s important that we encourage children to share how they’re feeling with the people around them, because once we talk about things, it can help us let our feelings out which can make us feel so much better.

To encourage children to share, explain to them that people are like big bottles of fizzy drink. If you keep shaking them and not releasing the lid, then they will fizz and go everywhere. So what is better? Releasing that lid a little bit and often, so it stops them building up.  

Tell parents to take a picture book and look at the different faces inside and then talk to their children about which face reflects how they’re feeling.

With older children, parents can use films or television shows to help prompt discussions about difficult emotions, and healthy responses to feelings.

6. And breathe

Sometimes when we worry, it can make our body’s feel different. For some people when they worry they can find it hard to breathe. 

If you can encourage children to focus on taking deep breaths it can help them feel calm.

This is an activity called ‘my little teddy bear’. The child lays down and the adult places a teddy or soft toy on their tummy.  As they breathe in and out, tell them to watch their teddy or toy move slowly up and down.

By giving the child a focus, it encourages them to breathe more slowly and regularly, and also distracts them from their worries. 

7. Take five

This is another thing that teachers can suggest to parents to do with their children to help with their breathing.

The parent or teacher shows the child to spread the fingers on one hand out, and take a finger of their other hand, and trace their way up and down their thumb and fingers as they breathe in and out.

As the finger runs up, they breathe in, and as it runs down, they breathe out. These five deep calming breaths can help when a child is feeling flustered or overwhelmed.

Roisin Robinson is a play therapist for the NHS

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