children, education, health, mental health, wellbeing

Mind the School Gap

Our children and young people are back at school with huge benefits to their education and rebuilding of their relationships, but what effect is it having on their wellbeing, and what about those who care for them?

[14 min read]

There’s no denying that 2020 did not provide the vision we had hoped for. Raise your hand if you’d made plans to travel, get the dream job, or be struck with anxiety or depression. Oh wait, what? Why would anybody want the last one? Why indeed?

Sad though that with World Mental Health Day shining out from the calendar, now that our educational institutions have thrown open their doors, our young people’s wellbeing seems to be overshadowed by a focus back on learning. That’s to say nothing of the staff’s either.

I commit part of my week to working in a school as a Learning Mentor for children with Complex Needs. I see the ins and outs of school life, and due to the many other hats I wear and have worn previously, remain in contact with many education and youth work professionals. Here then are a few things I have noted from a myriad of conversations.

The main caveat from the outset is that all school’s operate differently, suggesting an interpretation of the rules to suit, and so the below is not purely based on one setting.

Our children and young people are being kept as physically safe as they possibly can be. Let’s make that clear. Headteachers have had an arduous task attempting to make sense of the government’s advice (haven’t we all?). Children sit apart where possible, they’re reminded about hand washing, and they help keep their spaces tidy. In some schools they bring their own equipment, in others they don’t. Most have reverted to packed lunches and those entitled to free school meals are generally left with a sandwich, cake, and piece of fruit (or a variation of this). Gone are the days of the hot school meal, which for some was their only hot meal of the day (indeed, in some cases was their only meal).

If they’re older they wear masks, if they’re younger they don’t have to, although as one Year 5 said to me the other day ‘I really wish more children would wear masks because it’s scary and I don’t want to lose friends.’

Children are kept in bubbles and this, it seems, has generally had a positive impact. Limiting movement means better control, getting to form relationships that are more than fleeting, and less running around trying to figure out where you are meant to be next from an ever-changing timetable. What it also means is that staff have to be constantly on their ‘A’ game. There is no room for a quick sigh and clear the mind as you walk down the corridor to your next class or intervention as corridor greetings do not feature in day to day life.

Any interventions that Teaching Assistants do are with the same group of children from the same class, often in the same room or an area close by. The consensus seems to be a greater sense of community within that unit as a result. We become like families. With that analogy comes the joy of arguments and frayed tempers though and this can lead to very lively environments at times.

It is in these places that wellbeing continues to take a knock. Already our children and young people are in heightened states returning to the classroom. Some are undoubtedly anxious about being back, even though they may have been in before the summer holidays, some had only just taken their tentative steps into the dizzying heights of Year 7 before being thrust into isolation, and those starting their final year of primary school have to come to terms with the understanding that their last nervy year of school will continue to be overshadowed by an invisible enemy. At the top end of the secondary, GCSE and A-Level pupils try to regain some normality and prepare for the prospect of their exams being moved or cancelled like their peers before them.

Not a day goes by when some comment or concern about Coronavirus and the state of the world isn’t aired by a child I work with whether in the classroom, on the playground, or when I’m at youth club.

It’s important to our young people, it’s playing on their minds, and they still need time to process it. But there’s work to be done, so on we plough in a bid to ‘catch them up’ and return to some sense of normality.

The buzz phrase now is ‘the new normal’, but what is the new normal? Supressing the ability for young people to air their worries? It does seem that way in many cases. You’ll have noted above that I said our children and young people are being kept physically safe, and my what hard work that is, but what about mentally?

Mind, the mental health charity, have reported that 68% of youngsters have claimed their mental health has worsened over lockdown. Is this extra to what was already a high figure? YoungMinds, the mental health charity for children and young people reports this as being closer to 80%. 68-80%? Put that into perspective. In a class of say, 30 children, which is the maximum according to the Department of Education, an average of 22 of them are struggling – and dare I say not receiving high-quality support.

Why not? Well, PCAMHS and CAMHS are already over-stretched – they were way before lockdown hit, with initial assessments taking four and a half months, and treatment not occurring in many cases for at least another year. Schools are underfunded, and speaking to teachers and teaching assistants alike, they haven’t the time, resources, knowhow, or confidence to deliver effective wellbeing support.

Sure they can get children to fill in a colourful piece of paper which says ‘I can try these three things if I’m feeling low’, they can all get up and have a boogie as a class to release endorphins into the brain and make them feel happy, and they can sit quietly in a ‘mindful’ state in an attempt to get the chattering mind to take a break, but what good is it if our children can’t engage?

And why can’t they engage? Because as our lovely little learners always like to ask…’why?’ They need answers. They need guidance and help to understand ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing. It’s easy enough to say ‘because it helps’, but that’s not enough.

As a Relax Kids coach and a Youth Worker passionate about wellbeing it means so much more when a child of any age understands about their limbic system, and yes, even in nursery, if taught about it, they can hold onto that nugget and begin to appreciate the real benefits of activities such as mindfulness and meditation.

A school reportedly takes a few minutes on an ad-hoc basis to put on a YouTube video of a ‘calming voice’ to help the children ‘chill’, but this is interspersed with regular prompts from staff to ‘put your hands down’, ‘stop wriggling around’, and ‘if you don’t do this now, you’ll do it later in play time’ as if meditation was a form of punishment. I’ve even heard of ‘Be quiet. You’re disturbing everybody else and this is to help you. You only have to listen to it.’ As we know, a ten minute meditation for those who do not practice it and understand why and how it helps, really does work miracles. I jest of course.

It’s at this point, I’ll make a little plug for Relax Kids. I’ve mentioned the company already but we have more than 5,000 coaches in 49 countries across the world with a wealth of experience in delivering relaxation techniques to children and adults alike.

When people hear the name Relax Kids or relaxation, the immediate thought often runs to ‘you help us sleep’. In a way, yes, but I’d like to suggest that it’s less helping you sleep (although the techniques can be beneficial in that area), but more we are there to help relax that chattering mind.

Relax Kids coaches have backgrounds in teaching, counselling, psychology, and oh so much more. They are truly specialists in their field. Many have lived experiences too. The training incorporates learning about the brain and its functions and processes, it has a community of experts across the globe bringing together the latest advice and ideas, and the organisation is the leading expert in relaxation in children – it was the forerunner to all other similar companies now in existence, having been started 20 years ago when mindfulness was relatively new on the scene.

The reason for the perhaps shameful plug is because around every corner is a coach, able to offer the support that schools so desperately need, at ridiculously affordable prices. Coaches deviate from the main programme in order to tailor the provision to suit the individual need, whether working on a 1:1 basis or in a group setting.

Classes teach participants how to boost their energy levels, whilst developing their coordination; how to develop their confidence whilst improving their social interaction; decrease tension in their bodies whilst simultaneously boosting their immune systems; understand how to positively stimulate the lymphatic system which helps get rid of the body’s toxins; bring energy to the respiratory system whilst developing concentration; develop self confidence which in turn improves emotional resilience; and develop their imaginations and creativity which has proven benefits for their memory recall and sleep.

Relax Kids really is suitable for all. Best of all, the techniques can then be used throughout the child’s life.

Imagine the delight for children and staff alike to be gifted by the governors (ooh, there’s a thing – ‘Governor’s Gift’) an hour a week to be taught essential life skills that they can use immediately and continue to use into adulthood. Seeing the data from other coaches, and my own, it’s clear young people get a lot out of the programme.

Indeed, the Sylvester School reported that by using the Relax Kids programme, ‘91% of children scored average, above average, or well above average on their overall level of emotional literacy on the NFER scale’ (Relax Kids). Introducing this essential service to support wellbeing resulted in the school receiving an Outstanding rating for emotional well-being, personal development and pastoral care, and pupil behaviour improved greatly with fixed term exclusions reducing from 19 to zero.

It’s all well and good though, but what about the adults? The Relax Kids programme works successfully with them too. It’s that adaptable. I’ve heard Headteachers gift to their staff sessions in the gap after school and before meetings. As a result, not only are they benefitting from learning essential life skills themselves, but they have the opportunity to ‘hit the pause button’ and in turn can be more effective. Imagine a school where the staff don’t feel burnt out as much or as often (or at all!). A happier workforce is likely to result in greater retention.

The thing is, teachers and support staff are humans too. Many will be walking in each day worried not only about doing the best they can for the children in their charge but about their own health, what will happen to their ailing parents in the care home they cannot visit, or their own children and how they are being looked after at their school.

Staff rooms are sacred sanctuaries where staff have always been able to offload about little Jimmy running amok and how Annie in 8F fell off her chair but saw the funny side herself. Now it seems they’re becoming melting pots of tension as well. Slowly they sink into quiet caves as people spend their precious few minutes plunging into their phones for recent statistics, calling up family to check on them, and scrolling social media to see what our government has decided is the latest craze in herd immunity.

Adults are covering each other to ensure the school still runs, as staff are perhaps still shielding, fallen foul of covid (or living with someone who has), or in the worst case scenario, covering colleagues who have passed away. The silence is often punctuated only by frustration, worry, and deathly empty stares as they try and remember what friendly banter was. Either that or fake smiles get plastered on and all seems well with the world. In fact, that’s what happens in the classrooms too.

Finally, families. Let’s not forget them. Schools are families but they serve families and so many have been affected by this awful pandemic. Lost loved ones, furlough, and a constant battle just to keep the head above water. Parents are in need of love and support too. As the money dries up, rent and mortgages are unpaid. What then? Schools often rally around, but there’s only so much they can do. Loneliness sets in as the children return to school and you’ve no job to go to and you can’t visit family and friends. Mind reported that depression in adults has projected to have doubled. One in five is the figure quoted. So let’s do some rudimentary maths.

Roy’s Rudimentary Maths
These figures are based purely on rough data available to give some idea of perspective. I have not undertaken a case study or in-depth research study into this. I have taken an average of three schools for figures.

Primary SchoolSecondary School
Pupils on roll2101500
(inc. sixth form)
Pupils with worsened or new
mental health condition
(about five classes)
(about five
year groups)
Staff on roll50150
Staff with worsened or new
mental health condition
Parents of children
(presumed on half total with two parents and half with single parent)
Parents with worsened or
new mental health condition
Pupils, staff, and parents
with worsened or new
mental health conditions

As noted, my data is purely hypothetical but based on rough figures we have available. What it highlights is potentially the truly horrendously difficult positions our schools and families are in with regards to being able to support themselves. If adults are to support our next generation, they themselves need to feel supported and empowered enough to be able to cope with the stresses of each day.

Jane Evans, Parent Coach and Trauma Expert, says that ‘parents are their child’s most precious resource’ and Marneta Viegas, Relax Kids Founder, qualifies this by saying that ‘parents need to understand and recognise their own self-importance first’. I’d class all adults in this. It’s all too easy to say that learning coping and relaxation strategies are something that our children need to learn but unless we as adults are able to do the same, we’re forever on a loop of high emotions and heightened states which not only destroys ourselves but projects onto others.

Children in particular are like sponges and in the same way that they absorb their school learning, they learn to take on and mirror everything that we are projecting. That includes our anxieties and stresses. Sure we can put on a brave face, but how much better to enjoy adult relaxation workshops where you can actually feel better and more in control? Again, what a great thing for schools to be able to offer.

Whilst I applaud everybody within education for their dedication to getting school’s reopened, because it has been a mammoth task (and I speak from personal experience of getting a youth centre back up and running), there really is so much more that can be done and should be done in order that we help not just other people, but ourselves.

Now is the time to take action and put mental health and wellbeing first, and make more of it. Yes, learning our English, Maths, Science are all key to getting on in life, but if you aren’t able to regulate your emotions, you’ll be forever in a vacuum of self-destruction.

Schools, I urge you, even if you think you are doing enough, to re-evaluate. Are you helping your families, your children, yourselves to the absolute maximum? Speak to organisations such as the award-winning Relax Kids and see what they can do.

Their coaches are passionate about mental health and wellbeing and whilst they can’t just drop everything and offer to run classes for free (because they too have to live), they could be just the caring, kind, compassionate cavalry you, your colleagues, and your community need at this current time.

And even if you don’t seek out a coach, they have great resources available. Whatever you do, do something, but do it properly. There’s nothing worse than a half-hearted attempt at wellbeing support, which could do more harm than good.

The Dalai Lama said ‘if every eight year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.’ That alone is cause to put our wellbeing at the forefront of what we do.

Now what a school that would be if wellbeing education was equally as important as everything else.

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