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Wellbeing and self-compassion: key ideas from our webinar with Dr Natalie Flynn

Clinical psychologist and author of Smart Mothering Dr Natalie Flynn joined The Education Hub recently for a webinar on maintaining the wellbeing of teachers, parents and students during lockdown and beyond.

Maintaining teacher wellbeing

No-one can teach, learn or caregive effectively if they are anxious, depressed or burned out, so teachers must ensure that they never allow the demands of their job, particularly during periods of extreme stress such as lockdown, to take a toll on their own mental health.

Teachers are highly committed professionals, but there are times when they need to acknowledge and accept that there is only so much they can do, and that sometimes it is just not possible to meet all of a student’s needs. A strategy that Natalie suggests teachers can use is to start each week by writing a list of what they can do and achieve without compromising their own or their family’s mental health. Teachers should notice when they are ruminating or being critical of themselves, and genuinely accept that they won’t be able to meet all their students’ needs and all their goals. Remember that the key strategy for protecting your own wellbeing and that of others is to draw a balance.

If teachers feel that their school is putting unreasonable pressure on them, they should be assertive to protect their own and their family’s mental and physical health. Similarly, leaders need to listen and respond if teachers have anxiety about their own health.

Supporting parents during periods of stress

During challenging periods such as lockdown, teachers may find that they need to deal with parents who are themselves experiencing high levels of stress as they navigate home-schooling while working from home. Natalie suggests that, when interacting with parents who are stressed, teachers should try not to take anything personally, but briefly distance themselves from their own emotions in order to consider what is really going on for that parent. Teachers can support parents by showing empathy (which involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes) and compassion (which involves the desire to relieve someone’s suffering). By remembering that everyone wants the best for the children, teachers and parents can find some common ground even during periods of extreme stress.

Supporting students during lockdown and the return to school

Pastoral care is very important, so Natalie suggests looking at students’ mood before anything else, because no-one can learn when they are depressed or anxious. Focus on staying calm, which is conducive to academic learning, and validate students’ concerns about missing their friends or not coming to school. An important part of maintaining student engagement is to start by asking questions: ask students how they are feeling, how they feel about their schoolwork, and whether they are finding it interesting. Finally, Natalie reiterated Nigel Latta’s advice to keep it honest, but keep it light.

Helping anxious students

Natalie offered some key advice for supporting anxious students:

  1. Validate their feelings by meeting them where they’re at emotionally
  2. Help them put the situation into perspective
  3. Reassure them

Children exhibit different symptoms of anxiety at different ages: children under 5 might regress, become clingy, and perhaps start wetting again, while primary school aged children often have stomach aches or other physical complaints. Irritability is also a pre-cursor sign of depression in children and young people. It is important to look beyond the physical symptoms and find out what they’re worried about, and then reassure them that an adult is looking out for them and will be there with them through the time of anxiety and uncertainty.

Older students may have anxiety over their academic results and the potential impact on their admittance to tertiary programmes. It is important to help them put this into perspective, validating their anxiety about their grades but emphasising their value as individuals over their academic outcomes. Natalie noted that it is important to pay particular attention to children with known mental health issues or those whose identity is strongly connected to their marks/academic success.

Supporting parents of children with special educational needs

Natalie’s advice for parents of children with special educational needs is to focus on what they have done and achieved over what they haven’t. Positive reinforcement is important, as is accepting that you can only do what you can do. She also suggested looking at what calms your child most before they get on with schoolwork – for example, do they need to move and get some exercise first?

To finish, Natalie offered these top tips for teachers:

  1. Figure out what you can do and focus on that
  2. Never compromise your mental health
  3. Practice self-compassion, understanding that we’re imperfect and being as kind to yourself as you are to others

For more on teacher wellbeing, see this research review