Dear Nadhim Zahawi, children need to express their grief about Covid as well as to ‘catch up’, Michael Rosen

How true this is, and it strikes right to the heart of what is needed for children as we see the cracks breaking open in the aftermath of the pandemic and how it is still malevolently seeping through our communities, families, schools and children.

The worrying rise in numbers of children with emotional and mental health needs is now recognised as one in six (NHS Digital 2021) which shows the stark reality of the undercurrent of anxiety, grief, and complex emotional distress that all too many children face.

There are children who are coping, who have a more secure and contained safe base that helps them to manage anxieties or fears but there are vast growing numbers of children for whom the pandemic has had a huge and ongoing impact and who we need to recognise, support and enable to feel heard and their experiences acknowledged.

We can all struggle with our experiences and emotions at times but our young people particularly need the support of those around them to cope with the day-to-day pressures that impact our capacity to engage well in life. There is awareness of how it is the small things that can make the biggest difference, an act of kindness, being out in nature, having time with a friend, a listening ear, and knowing where to go for help. There is a huge need for young people to have social support and access to early intervention where they feel heard, responded to, and are not left to feel alone and unsupported.

Returning to school and education has been hugely important in getting back a sense of ‘normal’ and this has quickly led from a brief recovery phase to a focus on achievement and academic success.

As Michael Rosen states the focus has gone away too soon from the “very unfashionable idea of the ‘whole child’ and has moved instead to the ‘tested and measured child.'”

How has this been able to become cemented in the strategic direction and ethos in our schools and how has the voice of challenge, dismay or dissonance not been able to prevent this from becoming the centralised approach for school strategic leadership and expectation?

There is still so much that hasn’t been talked about or had the chance to be expressed in the rush to get back to the academic focus of ‘knowledge rich’ curriculums that centre around the academic nature of the expectation on and of schools.

How much time has there been for children to share their experiences and for their thoughts and experiences which may still be under the surface, to be expressed, shared, and really heard?

The danger is that we see more children showing their emotional distress in schools and presenting in ways that highlight mental health difficulties, these are then in danger of being seen as behaviour difficulties and problems within the child, rather than being noticed and their being recognition in how a child may be not coping with emotional distress and feelings that begin to come to the surface and are acted and behaved out.

We need to be able to offer children a rich curriculum and opportunities to engage in creative arts, expressive activities that help them to feel heard and validated and we need to be prepared to listen, notice, and respond.

As Michael Rosen so rightly highlights the squeeze on the expressive subjects and the arts led by the historical Gove regime for education, has led to a position of significantly fewer opportunities for children to talk about their experiences and to show their emotional experiences through the creative arts.

“The arts are precisely the kind of arena that gives us the space to explore and reflect on matters like personal and social trauma. The arts point to possibilities of finding ways of coping or overcoming difficulty and distress.”

Michael Rosen

Whilst children need to have the structure, the routines and the opportunities to engage again in learning, they also need greater opportunities for a broad, creative and expressive curriculum that is embodied as a whole school approach that really holds wellbeing and children’s current and long term mental health at the heart.

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