Helping learners with the transition back to school – ‘professional love’

In my role as an Emotional Health Practitioner, I recently delivered an online teacher training day about working with students post-lockdown, and on staff wellbeing. Over the course of the training, it became apparent that far too few teachers feel equipped to cope with students’ emotional wellbeing. Several commented that they do not feel qualified to deal with learners’ poor mental health. 

With many students around the world returning to their classrooms this September, after months at home in lockdown, it is more important than ever that teachers feel able to support students to cope – not only with a very different transition back to school, but also with the wider events and circumstances affecting them.

Partial school closures have affected countries across the world and, as students have been returning to school, they have been facing the stark reality that school life has now changed. As the academic year starts, we know the uncertainty of future months will provide challenges to both students and staff.

The return to the classroom makes it clear that school life has changed. With 2020 shining a light on students’ emotional wellbeing as never before, how can we do more to help our learners understand and manage their emotions?

Firstly, it’s important for us to acknowledge that students will have experienced lockdown very differently. Some will have welcomed the temporary relief from school pressures. Certain children will have naturally enjoyed time spent at home. It may even have improved some relationships between parents and children.

However, sadly, not all children enjoy loving, caring and supportive home environments. For many of these children, the additional time at home, and the inability to go out to school, may have brought them significant emotional distress.

Then, we must also be mindful of other vulnerable students as they return to school, for instance those who have experienced loss or bereavement; those who have been shielding as a result of health conditions (their own or a family member’s); those who already have existing social, emotional or mental health needs; and those who have special educational needs or disabilities.

Although each student’s experience of lockdown will have been different, all have faced the same challenges: missing school; missing their friends and teachers; and missing their extended families.  Each will have needed to tap into their own resilience, and each will have had a different level of coping skills. 

Moving forward

The rules and consistency of school life will allow students to feel safe and protected, and being back to the classroom will be an instant comfort to many. Students may turn to their teachers to ask for help to deal with their experiences. Although it may not always be easy to know how to react to a young person who is distressed, crying, experiencing a panic attack or expressing an anger outburst, I believe that ALL teachers are equipped with the ability to support students. I believe we can all provide ‘professional love’.

The concept of ‘professional love‘ was developed by Dr. Jools Page. In her PhD research, Dr Page examined the views of new mothers about returning to work, and the complex issues of ‘love’ and ‘care’ in day-care provision, which she conceptualised as ‘Professional Love’ (Page, 2011). I believe that, while maintaining boundaries, consistency and professionalism, teachers are nevertheless able to provide hope and compassion, and to forge close, trusting relationships with the students in their care. It is this quality that will help students to feel safe and secure, which will allow some of them the opportunity to simply talk about their lockdown experience. And for our students, it’s the power of talking that is essential now. As clinical psychologist Dr Karen Treisman says, “Every interaction is an intervention”.

The role of a teacher is to continue to support their student’s education and emotional wellbeing during this time, and here are three of my five steps to better support students:

  1. With a ‘whole school’ approach, where every member of staff takes responsibility by offering hope, compassion and professional love, the pastoral team will be able to respond to students who may need more support. I believe that if a school adopts this methodology, then therapeutic intervention, such as counselling, can be provided if and when needed to those students who require it most
  2. To simply show professional love (adhering to your own professional boundaries and timetable) offer conversations such as “I noticed you seemed down yesterday, is there anything you’d like to talk about?” or “Earlier you seemed angry, I’m here if you wanted to share a worry,can help alleviate and sometimes overcome any distress a student might be feeling
  3. Never underestimate the power of listening. As the late Mr. Steven Covey, author and international bestseller believed “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Celebrate achievements, not losses

As we know, resilience is a skill that students need to learn and experience. Lockdown will have naturally provided challenges, but it is important that we embrace what our students have achieved: what did they learn about themselves during lockdown? What was their biggest achievement? What were they most proud of during their time away from school? What was the biggest challenge that they overcame?

While we cannot control the daily impact and changes of Covid-19, we can control the professional love and calming environment that is now available to our students who are back to school.

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