children, education, mental health, wellbeing

Caring for the Zombie child

Back in October I wrote about the effect the pandemic was having on our children and young people, their learning, and their lives. Four months on, how far have we come?

[11 min read]

As we settled back into the classroom, with the majority of children returning, there was, for a time, hope. Despite doing the covid space dance, regular hand washing, and mumbling behind masks, our young people were back. They were once again where they needed to be – with their peers, learning about the world around them, and regaining some normality, reconnecting with those they had not seen other than virtually for months, and reforming attachments that had slowly slipped away.

I caveat as per last time that this account takes into consideration conversations I have had with other professionals also and is not solely based on one establishment.

The classrooms were far from what they looked like on news reports. I found myself, as many of my colleagues across the country did, holed up in a room, two pupils per desk, and desks no more than a foot apart. Timetables that would normally provide stability were torn up as any chance to inject something ‘a bit different’ in to the day to alleviate the monotony of just sitting at desks were adopted. Hour by hour things could change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The issue wasn’t that we didn’t want to throw in fun, but that nobody really could keep up with the changes, least of all the children who kept saying ‘what are we doing now?’, the question often asked to staff who didn’t really know themselves. These changes, in an attempt to lighten the mood were often overshadowed by the government’s advice (which would appear to change with every tick of the clock). Yet, the staff would put on a smile and a brave face and continue in these cramped conditions and uncomfortable way of working, windows wide open blasting in an arctic chill. Primary pupils still needed human contact, those with special needs often requiring it the most, and the affection of a hug is hard to push away. On many an occasion, even teens needed a shoulder to lean on.

Schools continued to have limited PPE, bubbles had to be crossed, and when the going got tough, pulling together with the last ounce of resolve was the only option. A couple of schools ended up with staff having time off due to having had contact with someone with the virus. This is understandable, but in some instances this left it nearly impossible to open. I even heard of schools where approximately 50% of their staff were off on one day but they were still trying to welcome in the majority of their pupils as there was no other option for the children in their community. It was barely workable (or dare I say safe?).

Teachers were working non-stop, missing breaks for days on end, then playing catch up with the children and young people that couldn’t be in class, sending work packs home, and making zoom calls. Teaching Assistants were taking classes, marking work, and doing more than is humanly possible. All the while they continued to be led by senior teams who were stretched beyond their limits and had themselves spent many an hour crying over their coffee (when they had time to brew one).

As we reached Christmas and felt that the two week break would be a positive thing for all, a circuit breaker in the virus, the news came that it was time to lock down again. I appreciate here that most schools have remained open to some degree throughout, but I’m sure you get my point.

I was saying to someone the other day that a year is a long time for anybody, but for children and young people it’s an eternity. They don’t get this time back. ‘The best days of their lives’ are turning out to be some of their worst. An example I gave was with members of the youth club I run.

When lockdown started in March 2020, most of my current cohort had only just stepped up to being in secondary school. They’d had the anxiety and stress of moving up, spent a few months getting used to the site and settled, only to be locked down. Now, February 2021, a year later, with schools potentially only properly reopening in March/April, we find they are already halfway through Year 8. Another six months, they are starting Year 9 when they will choose their GCSE options (based on an alternative type of education they’ve had), and they will officially be halfway through their upper schooling, well on the way to adulthood, and they are finding it tough. Boy, is it tough.

What we’re seeing are young people losing interest in life. There I’ve said it. Yes, they may join in with a few things here and there, but they are sick and tired. If they’re not able to be in school and see their peers, they’re on online calls all day, and can only have very limited contact with them outside of school (and when I say very, I mean VERY).

Many youth service providers such as the one I run are having to find ingenious ways to keep in touch with their young people, but quite often this results in further online calls, worksheets, and challenges to do in their own home, which is the same as school, and they don’t want it. We slowly are seen as the bad egg with the boring ideas because we’re copying. We’re not. We’re doing the best we can, as is everybody. Thankfully, there are a few that see the effort that goes in to trying to keep some sense of normality and boost our spirits – see, the whole situation gets everyone down.

When I first started offering online sessions (virtual youth club) last year the depleted number would all leap on and chatter excitedly. Restarting this year, they looked as though the end of the world was nigh. None wanted to speak. Interaction proved difficult. It has gotten better, but they are still feeling the affects greatly. What do they need? To feel safe, to meet their mates face to face, to laugh, play silly games, and be children – even the teens just want to have fun. That’s why I feel so fortunate to have been able to keep working and meeting children and young people virtually and provide laughter and chill out time for them. I’d rather be there in person, but any attempt to support their mental health is better than nothing at all.

I said before about ‘the new normal’. What is that? The figure by Mind, the mental health charity, was that 68% of young people had claimed their mental health had worsened over lockdown, with YoungMinds, the mental health charity for children and young people, believing this to be closer to 80%. Either way, what was once a figure of 1 in 10 young people having a mental health condition sees the official line now being 1 in 6, but believed to be closer to 1 in 4.

The ‘new normal’ sees our children feeling lonely, isolated, and as one news report suggested they will be our new ‘angry generation’, however, a counter-argument from another news outlet suggested that our young people are beginning to feel more empowered over their lives – not losing sight of their dreams, feeling more confident to step up and be heard (or at least try), with many determined to make a move into politics in the future to be able to make the positive changes for our country that they feel have not been brought about by the current government – could we be about to see an uprising of sorts?

It was a Euronews headline that caught my eye this morning as I left the shop and I’ve not been able to find it back home, but their website does have an interesting article, posing the question ‘Is the pandemic fuelling cyber-addiction in young people?’ I’m not sure I have the answer. Going from a few hours a day to virtually all day online is bound to have some effect. Michael Stora, a researcher who was interviewed claimed that ‘98% of young people suffering from cyber addiction have high IQ’s, but they also often have social or school phobias’ (Euronews). How many of our young people will become school phobic and recluse as a result of the pandemic?

Stora goes on to explain that for many, video games are like an anti-depressant, and I do wonder what will happen when we are able to return to outdoors activities, youth centres reopening, Scouts starting back in earnest with what they are good at. Will our youngsters keep away, unable to step outside the front door, and create meaningful relationships with others other than through a lens? Personally, one of the best anti-depressants is doing exactly that. Stepping out. All the more reason for essential services to be up and running again as soon as the schools are fully functional, if not before if we can.

As an aside, I’ve worked with enough young people on weekends away to know that when you say ‘no phones this weekend’, the first few hours are as though you’re walking through hell. They stumble around as though you’ve chopped their arm off, as they amble aimlessly across a field, eyes pulled out of their sockets, groaning that they’ve nothing to do, a trail of notifications floating in the air behind them, yet after a while, they realise that they can return to the days of old, when you’d give them a cardboard box and say ‘play’ and they used their imaginations and it was freeing, and even at the age of 16, given half a chance, they’ll still do that, because it’s fun, and that’s what life should be. That’s what they want. By the end of the weekend, they’re often not that bothered about their phones, although temptation from idle thumbs once back home…

But there is something to be said for getting our service providers back up and running. Those ones that can reach our young people – the after school clubs, the youth centres, and support services. The sad fact is we are expecting the damage of the coronavirus to render many of them permanently closed. I thank our lucky stars that the service I run has been able to secure funding otherwise I think our fate would have been the same. We run in a relatively affluent area with what any outsider would class as ‘the nice kids’ – those ones that don’t stereotypically come from the wrong side of the tracks. I’ve even hated typing that based on my own values but I want to make a point.

One parent recently stated to me that the fact our service isn’t open other than online is having such a detrimental impact that they fear that when our doors reopen we won’t be offering what we were before but will be troubleshooting, firefighting, picking up the pieces. We do a lot of those things anyway, but without trying to glorify the war, it makes me feel like that last scene in Blackadder. We’re waiting for that whistle to blow, for the doors to open on the building, and to meet whatever faces us.

And we will. We’ll be there and we’ll do it, because that’s what we do. Youth leaders, Scout leaders, Guide leaders, addiction workers, sports coaches, and anybody else who should get mentioned that falls into the category of pieces picker upper that my brain has decided not to bring to the fore. As usual, each service will have its own programme, its own targets, its own way of doing things, but I highly suspect the priority will be offering safe spaces where they can offload and we can help sort through the deluge of ‘why’ questions, the tears, the tantrums, and paying particular attention to those who sit there in some sort of stunned silence unsure of what this ability to be ‘free’ actually is.

The priority won’t be on trying to get them to complete a worksheet or take part in activities. It will be treating them almost like toddlers once more. Wrapping them up in that safety blanket, telling them we’re here for them, and being ready to listen whenever they decide the time is right to offload the absolute carnage that has occurred in their minds over such a long period of time. We’ll offer space for that, and we’ll do it with a smile, a laugh, and a joke, because remember, laughter is the best medicine, and if we can make things fun, they’re more likely to engage and it’s at that point we can really start making a difference. I personally cannot wait for the moment I hear the first laughter of a young person fill the hall again in my youth club.

It’s at this time too we’ll see too who makes mental health and wellbeing funding a priority. Let’s hope the right decisions are made. And funding for such essential services too.

Whatever happens, I am suspecting though, as I stand in the corner of my youth club hall on the first evening back, and maybe subsequent evenings to follow, that even if we see smiles on their faces, it will take a long time to unpick the question that will forever remain etched in their minds – ‘what the hell did we go through, why did we go through it, and will we have to go through it again?’

For their sake, for their future, and for their children’s futures, let’s hope not.

If your young person needs support, please do get in touch at the top of the page.

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