Topic 4 How to support well-being

The school’s role in supporting and promoting mental health and well-being can be summarised as:

  1. Prevention: improving the mental health and well-being of the whole school population.
  2. Identification: recognising emerging issues as early and accurately as possible.
  3. Early support: helping pupils and students access specialist support: school psychologist.
  4. Access to specialist support: working effectively with external agencies to provide swift access or referrals to specialist support and treatment.

In the next few slides, we discuss these elements in depth.

In terms of prevention at primary school, in order to process the pandemic period, it is important to follow three steps (Herman, 1997):

  1. building a stable and safe context;
  2. following the phase of reenactment, expression and emotional recognition;
  3. “reconnecting” with one’s environment and with others.

These activities can be carried out in the school context by first of all offering paths of social-emotional sharing.

 


It is paramount to build in each classroom/school an atmosphere of serenity and trust in others, including:

  1. Resuming school by restarting from relational and friendly aspects, returning to experiencing modes of cooperation, listening, and understanding of others;
  2. School workers are responsible for being attentive and available to students’ needs by giving them information that can help them process what has happened, structuring teaching in a clear and accessible way;
  3. Restoring routines by making the day as predictable as possible without denying the past or expecting to do things as if nothing had happened.
  4. It is paramount to build in each classroom/school an atmosphere of serenity and trust in others, including: Aiming for authoritativeness, which implies ability to put rules in place that have meaning, even if they are not always cognitively understandable. Setting limits is critical for good emotional management of children/youth.
  5. It is essential to propose activities that support a future orientation, work on imagination, creativity and foster a form of positive self-recognition by other peers and teachers.
  6. Promoting resilience by fostering socialization through discussions and group work, providing opportunities to experience success by cultivating in pupils a sense of competence in doing things (Masten, 2007).
  7. Enhancing the resources present in the school and classroom context rather than focusing solely on the consequences of stressful events.

Finally, it is pivotal fostering coping strategies!

Coping strategies are a set of actions, both cognitive and behavioral, that the subject enacts to change and/or manage internal and/or external demands (the stressors).

It is thus an active process, a learned and conscious response that the subject uses to cope with difficulties and stressors (Folgheraiter, 2003).


All these coping modes, when supported and reinforced by present and sensitive adults, help define the child’s Self.

Indeed, the self-perception of being able to cope effectively with difficulties is linked to feelings of mastery and self-efficacy, of security and confidence in oneself and toward others.


The teacher and school are important sources of support for the development of resilience and coping strategies, as they are able to provide (House, 1981):

  • emotional support (interest, affection, care and empathy toward others)- instrumental support (active intervention in the person’s environment)
  • information support (offering suggestions, advice and information)
  • affiliative and belonging support (providing trust, appreciation and esteem for the other).
  • instrumental support (active intervention in the person’s environment)
  • information support (offering suggestions, advice and information)
  • affiliative and belonging support (providing trust, appreciation and esteem for the other).

Stress should be regarded as an essential function of our organism, as it enables us to cope with demands, but also with external pressures and threats, i.e., it offers the advantage of adapting to our surrounding environment; this is essential for the survival of human beings (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984).


Thus, we can distinguish distress and eustress:

EUSTRESS: Stress that allows the activation of adaptive functions with respect to the problem, enabling us, for example, to cope with it by devoting the right amount of attention and energy to it.

DISTRESS: When the stressful situation requires an adaptive effort that exceeds the individual’s perceived possibilities and results in progressive stress that can lead to the deterioration of the person’s psychophysical defences, even and especially in the developmental subject.


A dramatic event such as pandemic is a collective stressor and therefore takes on certain characteristics that transcend the individual dimension (Barton, 1970; Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Mawson, 2005). At the same time, several children/teens experienced traumatic events.

PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA: stress of extreme severity, which threatens mental well-being. The key aspect is the impact that the trauma-related thought or memory may have on the child/youth’s functioning in various contexts (friends, family members, school).


How can we identify signs of distress at school?

  • First, pay attention to all changes considering their intensity, duration, appropriate behaviour, intensity, duration, appropriate behavior relative to age as well as the level of interference in various contexts of life particularly at school.
  • Somatic level: such as stomach aches and headaches. Although these are typical childhood complaints, they may appear more frequently and in specific situations thus revealing the possible presence of a stressor. The child may also show hypervigilance, appear tired, and incur sudden changes in body weight;
  • Behavioural level: younger children may regress and change the way they play and behave, enacting restrictions and repetitive actions and reproducing the stressor. Older children, on the other hand, may begin to isolate themselves, start talking too much or too little, have problems socializing, and adopt more risk behaviours.

  • Emotional level: difficulties in emotional management and regulation, with expressions of anger, low mood, excessive fear, feelings of helplessness, low confidence in self and others, or apathy;
  • Cognitive level: mild manifestations such as difficulty concentrating to more severe expressions such as deficits in the development of certain skills, learning difficulties at school. In addition, children may relive trauma, experience episodes of dissociation and behave differently toward others, life and the future.

Those under “special observation” will be the “most fragile” (Flynn, 2006), including:

  • pupils with special educational needs;
  • pupils with disabilities;
  • students with medical or psychological pathologies that have already been diagnosed;
  • students experiencing or facing moments of transition such as separation, divorce, and bereavement.

This special observation is because there are 4 domains of risk factors for the development of psychological distress that are closely interrelated:

  • Internal child characteristics (biological vulnerability, temperament, cognitive abilities);
  • Quality of relationships with attachment figures;
  • Parenting style and socialization style;
  • Family context (critical events, family stress, trauma, social network).

  • Create a listening space with a Psychologist in a place other than the classroom but at school where children/youngsters can:
  • Identify and objectify their issue and the emotions involved in it;
  • Start a Psychoeducation on how certain “automatic responses” work and an understanding of how situations, emotions and thoughts are interrelated;
  • Provide opportunities for emotional reframing and reflection on one’s sometimes dysfunctional coping strategies in the face of difficulties.
  • Suggest short Mindfulness meditation exercises to reduce “stress” and increase emotional coping skills.

Promote some of the skills in the different sections of the WHO document (2020) to cope with times of stress, in particular:

1.Ground yourself.

2.Unhooking.

3.Be kind.

4.Making room.

1.Ground yourself during emotional storms by noticing your thoughts and feelings, slowing down and connecting with your body by slowly pushing your feet into the floor, stretching and breathing, and then refocusing and engaging with the world around you.

2.Unhooking

  • Notice the difficult thought or feeling with curiosity. Focus your attention on it. Imagine the painful feeling as an object, and notice its size, shape, colour and temperature.
  • Name the difficult thought or feeling.
  • Then, refocus on what you are doing. Pay full attention to everyone.

Here you can listen a guided meditation from one of the leading author about, John Kabat Zinn.

3.Be kind. Notice pain in yourself and others and respond with kindness. Unhook from unkind thoughts by noticing and naming them. Then, try speaking to yourself kindly. If you are kind to yourself you will have more energy to help others and more motivation to be kind to others, so everyone benefits.

4.Making room, Trying to push away difficult thoughts and feelings often does not work very well. So instead, make room for them:

  • Notice the difficult thought or feeling with curiosity. Focus your attention on it. Imagine the painful feeling as an object, and notice its size, shape, colour and temperature.
  • Name the difficult thought or feeling.
  • Allow the painful feeling or thought to come and go like the weather.

  • Enable the school, through the skills involved, to offer support that can send/report “emergencies” outside the school environment by defining a support network and continuity of intervention with the Health System.
  • Ensure the parent provides continuity in the care of the child and timely intervention in relation to the child’s difficulties by explaining to the people involved, in a clear way, the steps to be taken for taking charge outside the school setting.
  • Activate a direct line between the school and the Healthcare System so as to communicate as directly and quickly as possible.

Communication is not only verbal, but also non-verbal:

you should ensure that the signals you are giving out through your body language are positive, confident, and engaging.

For example, making eye contact with students/participants when you are talking to them shows that you are being supportive and attentive. As you teach, you should use gestures to emphasise your words. This increases the interactivity of the lesson, making it more visually interesting and hence, more memorable.

Moving around the classroom/group while you teach can help to remove the barrier between you and your students/participants, and gives them less opportunity to zone out or get distracted.

Body language is also important when dealing with negative behaviour. To avoid being confrontational, ensure that you don’t stand directly above or in front of a student, point, or invade their personal space.