Covid-19 has placed a huge strain on the collective mental health of families across the UK. For children in their formative years, the impact could be colossal.

Government statistics show that children are already more anxious and less satisfied with their life since the pandemic started. They’re spending less time with their friends and are worried about their loved ones getting ill. And while they might be grateful to be back in school after the challenges of home learning, they are now faced with a ‘new normal’ that sadly isn’t really very normal at all.

From worrying about where to stand and what they can touch, to the challenges presented by getting support from teachers who have to maintain a safe social distance, to only being able to mix with children in their bubble, make no mistake, times are tough for children in school right now. As someone who is passionate about protecting the wellbeing of children, this is extremely troubling.

The importance of mental health

It’s always struck me as unfair that the mental health and wellbeing of pupils has tended to play second fiddle to attainment, especially when the data shows the two are so closely linked. The National Child Development Study showed that people who experience mental health challenges in childhood have poorer outcomes with qualifications and employment, and also with relationships, family and their health.

Last year I had high hopes that things were about to change. At a roundtable event that I attended, hosted by the Department for Education, the Government announced that it would become mandatory for all primary schools to teach children about relationships, physical and mental health as part of the PHSE curriculum from September 2020. It seemed that we might at last be about to turn a corner.

Then Covid-19 hit. This virus has put schools under enormous pressure and that’s something I have experienced directly through my ongoing role as a Director of Compliance, Health and Welfare at a primary school. While the Government’s decision to move the deadline for these changes to the PHSE curriculum is understandable, research shows that are children struggling and teachers tell us that their pupils need support with their mental health right now.

At iSpace Wellbeing we’re 100 percent dedicated to improving the lives of children by giving them the tools and the knowledge to look after their mental health. That’s why we’re changing our business model to give every school across the UK free access to our proven and award-nominated iSpace Wellbeing Curriculum – so they can deliver the support children need at this vital time and protect their own wellbeing at the same time.

What is the iSpace Wellbeing Curriculum?

Put simply, it’s an evidence-based curriculum that’s underpinned by mindfulness, positive psychology and neuroscience frameworks and it makes learning about mental health and wellbeing fun. Through a new language, quirky characters and a variety of fun exercises and lesson plans, it provides a ready-to-go whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing, giving pupils the tools they need to know who and how to ask for help.

I’ve been working in child development, mental health and family healthcare for more than 25 years – over half of that in the education sector – and improving physical, social, mental and emotional health in children has always been a key focus for me. Teachers are under a huge amount of time-pressure at the best of times and the situation with Covid-19 – including the new rules and regulations that are necessary to keep everyone safe – make the prospect of creating bespoke lesson plans on mental health feel even more challenging to our overstretched workforce.

At iSpace Wellbeing we’ve already produced more than 100 lesson plans covering KS1, KS2 and KS3 and these are being actively taught in 30+ forward-thinking schools across the UK that sit across both the independent and state sector. Two of those schools were recently nominated for national Wellbeing awards for the way they have been able to support their pupils with their mental health and wellbeing – and our curriculum has been central to their success. We’re proud of this recognition and of successes like our recent appearance on CBBC Newsround, but we’re far more proud of the incredible five star feedback we receive every week from pupils, teachers and parents.

Mental health and wellbeing can feel like a heavy subject. Lots of people don’t like talking about their feelings and that can be the same for children. I knew that we needed a way to make learning about our feelings fun and to take away the threat of opening up about our wellbeing.

The iSpace Wellbeing Curriculum takes children on a journey across a Wellbeing Galaxy. Through their interactions the children learn new words like ‘niggles’ and ‘stressors’ that they can use to describe their feelings and worries. They also find out more about what can impact on their emotions with story-based lessons on what we call ‘brain science’ like ‘fight, flight and freeze’. Underpinning these fun stories and exercises are important lessons about sharing, friendship, physical and emotional health and anti-bullying.

It is on these magical adventures that children can pick-up what we call ‘backpack tools’ that they can use to help them to manage their emotions in challenging times. These can be exercises like ‘I Stop Pause And Calm Everything’ – the phrase that gives iSpace its name – breathing techniques, identifying which people they could ask for help to ‘land their rocket’ or simply activities that make them feel calm, like walking their dog or talking to a friend. These backpack tools form the children’s emotional toolkit and the curriculum helps them to understand when and how to use them.

How can I access the curriculum?

Up until now the iSpace Wellbeing Curriculum has been a paid-for service but, with everything that’s happening in our society, we cannot sit by and see schools struggle when we know we have a ready-to-go tool that can help them.

Last month our board – who all have direct or indirect experience of the impact that mental health challenges can have on our lives – made the decision to change our business model and provide all schools with free access to our Mental Health and Wellbeing Curriculum – removing the previous charge of up to £2,500 per school. Going forward this evidence-based, proven and ready-to-go curriculum will be available to every school in the UK and Ireland at no cost.

Our organisation is incredibly passionate about the importance of good mental health in childhood and we’ve made it our mission to improve and protect the mental and emotional wellbeing of more than 50 million children by 2030. We hope that this move to free access will be an important step on this journey.

To find out more about how to register for our free Mental Health and Wellbeing Curriculum, which comes with full training, go to: https://ispacewellbeing.com/ where you can also access other resources such as resilience training and educational books.

Tips for supporting pupils’ mental health

Let children know they’re not aloneResearch by the charity Young Minds shows that 80% of children feel the Covid-19 situation has made their mental health worse. It’s important that children realise that it’s ok to be finding things hard right now and that they’re not on their own.

Help them share their worries – There is lots of evidence that talking about our feelings helps protect our mental health, so providing a supportive and nurturing environment where children can feel safe to discuss their worries can be a big help.

Discuss self-care tips – Helping children to uncover ideas for things that will protect their wellbeing can be really beneficial. Being creative through drawing, photography or writing, being active by going for a run or playing sport or simply talking to friend could all be helpful.

Signpost to support – It’s so important that children understand who and how to ask for help. Spend some time helping them identify safe sources of support, whether that’s parents and friends, or charity’s like Childline, Action for Children, Barnardos or place2be. References

References

UK Government, State of the Nation Report 2020 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/effect-of-pandemic-on-childrens-wellbeing-revealed-in-new-report

Mental Health Foundation, Lifetime Impacts Report https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/lifetime_impacts.pdf

Young Minds, Wise Up Report https://youngminds.org.uk/media/1428/wise-up-prioritising-wellbeing-in-schools.pdf