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Wednesday Wisdom

Back to School

- Reflect -

Back to School. So, what does this term mean for you? As a working parent, for me, the return to school means I can finally stop worrying about how my children will occupy themselves and can instead focus on the tasks accumulating on my desk. School return means an empty house until late afternoon. This might feel blissful for some parents, but for others it can spell unwelcome quiet and, well, a sense of loneliness.

There is similar variance amongst pupils who anticipate the school term ahead. Some pupils haven’t been able to sleep waiting for school to start (one mother told me that her daughter had slept in her new uniform for fear of missing school). Others might dread the demands of the school day. September can be particularly stressful for families of very anxious children, and ‘emotionally-based school avoidance’ (previously known as ‘school refusal’) can be very hard for pupils, parents and schools to navigate (an excellent new book has just been published on this for school settings).

Transition anxiety is probably something we can all relate to. Did you feel a little bit unsure the first time you went to a party as lockdown rules eased? Did you feel a bit worried that your social skills weren’t up to scratch after a prolonged period without seeing friends? How did it feel when you first went into work, after being at home for so long? Change can be anxiety or butterfly-inducing for all of us, even for teachers. 

We expect school staff to somehow be even more resilient and mentally stronger than the rest of the population, but I think it is a good time of year to consider how our children’s teachers may feel returning to class. Over the last two weeks, I have been privileged to see ‘behind the scenes’ in many schools as staff received INSET training. Typically, this involved staff teams getting together to plan for the year ahead, refresh knowledge, consolidate school values and get classrooms organised for the new intake. I am always touched and impressed by how much school staff ‘can’t wait’ to see their pupils again and get back to teaching. Their worries often centre on doing the best job that they can for all pupils in their care. 

- Motivate -

In the UK, children and teens spend approximately 5-6 hours in school for approximately 140 days a year. Much of this is spent in the classroom in the presence of their peers and teachers. The home-school partnership, the parent-teacher relationship and the connections that children enjoy with their teachers are important for children’s attainment and mental health.

Our children live and work within and between the social ecologies of the school, home and community. Relationships fostered within these systems play a role in how they see and feel about themselves and how they relate to others. 

In school, the relationships that are cultivated between pupils and teachers can have a substantial and lasting impact. Millions watched singer, Adele, as she embraced her former primary school teacher on stage last year. They were both emotional upon meeting, because they knew what their relationship and that teacher’s encouragement had meant for this global star. Adele is just one example. Many of us have had similar experiences. Can you think of that one teacher who saw you, heard you, or made a little bit of time for you?

Developmental theory supports the idea that one adult who sees potential in a child can exert positive influence over their life trajectory. Indeed, recent research reveals more about the power of teacher-student relationships as both a protective factor and a risk factor for young people’s emotional development. A recent study found that seven to eight year old children who reported exposure to harsh, punitive and inconsistent parenting, but who also had a good relationship with their teacher at age 11, were better able to regulate the negative affect of the parenting they received, than those who did not experience positive teacher-student relationships. Positive teacher-student connections mitigated some of the negative impact that adverse parenting may have had on children’s lives. Importantly, children who did not report being exposed to harsh and inconsistent parenting, but who did report less positive relationships with a teacher, were less likely to regulate their emotions into adulthood. It highlights how the role of teachers is on a par, and in some cases perhaps even more important, than those of parents in young people’s development. 

Dr Ingrid Obsuth’s work (2017, 2021) shows that better teacher-student relationships at ages 10/11 predict positive behavioural outcomes such as less aggression and engagement in delinquency up to seven years later, as well as more prosocial behaviour up to the age of 15. Her work also points to the fact that a child’s perception of the relationship with the teacher matters more than the teacher’s. When children were asked to think of a teacher with whom they feel they have a positive relationship, their answers seemed to suggest that such a teacher is ‘fair’, ‘likes’ them, helps them, is ‘curious’ about them, knows them and possesses a good sense of humour

When asked to describe relationships with teachers that they perceived as less optimal, children described teachers not making time to get to know them, using de-motivating language or being unfair in their treatment of them. This research made me consider that, whether at home or school, children respond best to adults who have a genuine interest in them and who are perceived to treat them fairly. Something for us all to think about. 

- Support -

In the busy working world of a school, particularly senior schools, it can be hard for staff to develop knowledge about every single pupil and keep up to date with the lives and interests of all students. Building positive relationships might feel like an impossible ‘add on’ to an already demanding job.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the first step in achieving positive relationships with pupils or even our own children is to remember the advice we get on plane journeys and make sure that we put our own mask on first. If teachers (or parents for that matter) are feeling comfortable, happy and healthy in their lives, it is much more likely that these optimal approaches towards young people will come more naturally. Wonderful organisations like the Education Support Trust exist to provide support for educational professionals, but what can we do, as parents, to support the teachers who care for our children, day in, day out? 

Firstly, I suggest that we see teachers as partners, and very important ones. I also suggest we set the tone with teachers at the beginning of the year by perhaps taking time to send a supportive message. I think it’s important, on occasion, to let school staff know that we appreciate them and the work that they do. As the term continues, take the time to let them know when they have had a positive impact. Yesterday, I emailed my son’s new teacher to express my gratitude to him for his jolly, warm, attitude which meant my son’s very first day at senior school was a happy one. 

Teachers, headteachers and support staff are always incredibly pleased and motivated by the sort of feedback that they never seek, but greatly deserve. Partnership is based on rapport, trust and moving together in the same direction, for a common purpose. The love we have for our children combined with the professional love and dedication that their teachers show them, means our children have every reason to look forward to the days ahead. 

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

If you work in a Tooled Up school and would like to learn more about Dr Ingrid Obsuth’s research, make sure that you join our webinars on October 21st at 12.30pm, where Dr Obsuth will be reviewing what we know about the power of the teacher-pupil relationship, and November 4th at 12.30pm, where she will give educators practical tips on developing positive relationships with children. Book your tickets now.

I’d also urge all schools to read a newly published book on Mental Health and Attendance at School, written by Katie Finning, Tamsin Ford and Darren Moore. It covers a wide range of topics and provides practical advice and key information to practitioners. If you are interested in school attendance and emotionally based school avoidance, you could also listen to our podcast interviews with Dr Darren Moore and Dr Pooky Knightsmith

Interested staff might also consider booking a ticket for our webinar on improving school attendance. Victoria Franklin will talk us through key messages from new Government guidance (published by the DFE in May 2022) and focus on how schools can ensure compliance.

The Autumn term is now getting underway and our children are starting to get back into old routines (or establish new ones). If they need a bit of a nudge to get back into the mindset for school, don’t forget to download our Back to School Checklist. Teens might like to use our weekly Mindset Planner and any young people moving to a new senior or secondary school may benefit from filling in our Settling In Journal during their first few weeks. 

Finally, it’s World Suicide Prevention Day on 10th September. To mark this important day, we are extremely proud to announce the publication of a brand new resource for schools, written in collaboration with leading suicide prevention charity, The OLLIE Foundation. From this Friday (9th September), our Guidance for Educational Settings Following a Suicide or Sudden Death will be freely available to download on the Tooled Up website. Find out more here.

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Have a great week.