Recovery curriculum for mental health

Over the last 18 months schools have been riding a tidal wave of multiple changes. Children and adults alike have been swept through uncertainty and change like a tsunami with no one being sure of the outcome or the impact in the short, or indeed, the long term.

However, there has been huge recognition throughout the pandemic and the lockdowns, that we needed to have a period of recovery when children returned and that they would need a re-settling in period when they first came back. Friendships had changed, routines had changed, everyone was in ‘bubbles’ with masks and hand sanitiser and this was the new shape of the school day. Not only have there been significant changes but also the huge array of losses that we have all experienced, loss of events, loss of social experiences and loss of freedom to name just a few, as well as for some the painful reality of bereavement. Many schools embraced the need to focus on wellbeing and help children feel safe to come back into school and start again. Schools really have never worked so hard in trying to meet the needs of children, organising a new way of learning online, trying to check in with families and help them feel supported while riding a continual wave of new challenges.

Through these tumultuous times, the focus became the recovery curriculum promoted by Barry Carpenter, CBE Professor of Mental Health in Education, Oxford Brookes University UK April 2020.

He rightly highlighted the huge losses children had experienced and the need for relationships to be at the core of enabling children to feel safe enough to be back in school. He highlighted an approach of five levers including:

  • Relationships – the need for re-connection and repair
  • Community – awareness of the loss of community events and sense of community
  • Transparent curriculum – making the gaps in curriculum clear and explicit
  • Metacognition – the need to reskill and build children’s confidence again in learning
  • Space – the need to give children opportunities to rediscover themselves as learners

With this as the backdrop, children were welcomed back and there was an initial focus on PSHE and wellbeing days and more small bubble circle time activities, which were essential, but perhaps short-lived before the real focus on learning and addressing the learning gaps became the priority and the ‘business of learning’ paramount in the minds of educators.

The Department for Education set the expectation that schools return to normal by the Summer term 2021 but prior to this set the level that schools need to ‘create time to cover the most important missed content.’

Before long the language of ‘catch up’ and fears about what children had missed shifted into gear. This arguably began to cause a wave of further panic and fears for children and parents, but also teachers in needing to fact find and data collect and prove the missed learning outcomes weren’t too disastrous.

So what then of emotional health and wellbeing?

Reports and national studies are clear; mental health of children and young people is at an all-time low and the impact of the pandemic has intensified calls to national child mental health charities with services stretched to bursting point.

Schools have tried to get back to ‘normal’ and while this has seemed the right thing to do, there is perhaps a need for a more heightened focus on wellbeing within, not only the curriculum but the whole school culture. Supporting the wellbeing of staff is paramount too, so that they feel heard and listened to and with more open ways of working with families and wider services. Many schools know this and have this as an intention at the heart of their ethos, but even so, it can still be something that can be held as important but can sometimes get lost in the focus on learning.

There is a real need for a curriculum of emotional and mental health that is embedded within the culture, the environment, the ethos of a school with a focus on relationships and compassion along with enriching and exciting learning environments and innovative experiences for children. Let’s go back to more creative, play-based, project-style learning for all children while embedding the language of emotions and regulation. This has to be at the heart of a holistic and broad educational experience for all.

How might we develop mentally healthy cultures and safe enriching places for learning: A few suggestions

  • Relationships – Where the culture is set by the adults who are compassionate, empathic and proactive in building nurturing relationships with all children

  • Wellbeing PSHE curriculum – Universal provision around mental health that focuses on healthy relationships, understanding our emotions and equipping children with the language and strategies to express, regulate and be able to reflect on their experiences.

  • Targeted intervention and nurture provision – For identified children and their families, with a focus on strengthening relationships and having the language and skills to express and communicate emotions and experiences.

  • A high focus on outdoor education and adventure – Allowing children to develop wider life skills, teamwork and problem solving, to experience risk and to raise their aspirations.

  • Bringing nature into the daily world of school, with pets, a focus on the environment, forest and beach schools or aspects in the local community being not a separate subject, but embedded as part of daily life and more learning experiences taking place outside the classroom. Could include nature gardens, allotments, enterprise with chickens or beekeeping.

  • Opportunities for project learning within the community and links with local charities or community events or groups to develop compassion, global awareness and shared purpose.

  • Greater focus on the creative arts and opportunities for more self-expression and exploration.

  • A focus on play, not just for early years but for all as a way to enable spontaneity, fun and opportunities for social connection, imagination and creativity as well as risk-taking and problem-solving.

  • Creative parental partnership working that brings families into school to be involved in activities and events together – projects, exhibitions and celebrations.

  • Staff wellbeing – opportunities for staff to regulate, socialise, feel heard and have access to professional supervision so that their work is valued and emotionally supported.

There are many aspects of this that are becoming more prominent in schools and it is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list. But with a real and rising need to support children and their wellbeing, perhaps we need to really embrace a long-term recovery curriculum that is centred around wellbeing and aspiration. Creative and inspiring environments and an enriched curriculum that highlights vocational, as well as academic routes, would allow for children to reach their own potential and to have aspiration and self-worth for their achievements. School cultures need to place the utmost value on relationships, kindness, and care so that wellbeing is firmly embedded and integral to all children’s learning experience.

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