Covid-19: Tackling the trauma

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Tania Tirraoro reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic, and how that has impacted on SEN pupils and those who support them.

Summary

  • The anxiety, fear and trauma caused by the Covid-19 virus could impact some children for the rest of their lives.
  • Many children, especially those already prone to anxiety, will find the pandemic particularly traumatising.
  • It’s important to give children simple facts at a level they can understand.
  • Honesty and empathy are crucial when discussing trauma or bereavement.

It has been months since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. By now, even young children are experts in washing their hands for 20 seconds, using a variety of songs to help count the time.

While this will have given children a sense of personal agency in a situation totally out of their control, knowing how to wash hands correctly may not be the only legacy of the coronavirus crisis.

Anxiety, fear and, in some cases, grief and trauma will have affected many children and adults. For a child, this could impact the rest of their lives and it’s important to help them cope with whatever has occurred.

Impact on SEND pupils

The crisis has affected people in many different ways. That’s especially true for children with SEND, for whom school is for schoolwork and home is for relaxing. Suddenly having a parent nagging about completing school worksheets all day will have been like the nightmare of homework multiplied. Demand-avoidant children in particular will have found distance learning excruciating and their parents will have borne the brunt of their child’s unhappiness. Some parents even had to send in photographic evidence of completed tasks, which probably led to many parents doing the work themselves!

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Counsellor, Angela Kelly, is a parent of an autistic child. She explains how her son reacted:

‘In our house, I thought we were doing quite well with keeping our autistic son calm about it. Then I heard from his school that he’d been having concerns about catching Covid-19, so we were seeing the swan effect with him. He may have seemed serene but was desperately trying to keep afloat below the surface. We needed to let him know he could talk to us about his worries.’

It’s important to give children a clear perspective. Give them simple facts at a level they can understand. Anxiety and fear feeds on anything it can to keep it active. The antidote to fear is hope and the antidote to anxiety is focusing on facts, evidence, acceptance and grounding.

Be ready to gently correct misinformation that could be causing heightened stress. Teach older children how to look at news stories critically by checking where the information came from.

Try to concentrate on stories of hope and positivity, gathering stories about how people helped and cared for each other in small ways. Use this to talk about how everyone can continue to do this, even when the immediate threat has passed. Discuss, at a developmentally-appropriate level, how the things that have happened can help us change for the better as a society.

Dealing with trauma

If someone in your school, whether a child or adult, has died from Covid-19, you will need to address this. The first thing is to seek advice from the school counsellor about how to proceed and collaborate on a plan. It’s probably a good idea to work on this now so you are prepared, if you haven’t yet had this situation occur in your school.

Avoid euphemisms about death and let them know that they can talk to you if they want to. Depending on your school type, you could talk while doing other activities such as walking, planting or art and crafts. The way you usually communicate will be the most effective way but consider social stories and visuals too.

If needed, arrange for individual or group counselling sessions or play therapy, according to a child’s age or SEND. Remember also that different cultures will handle death differently, so work with the child’s parents or carers. You could also compile a list of free support resources to email, to help families support their mental health.

Counsellor, Angela Kelly, who’s also Mental Health Editor of the Special Needs Jungle website, says honesty and empathy are crucial:

‘I think the important aspect here is for teachers to pace themselves. Be honest about what they know or understand about a child’s experience. Listen, validate and empathise. Self-disclose about aspects of their own experience. Accept that we’ll be living a whole new normal, where we’ve trodden the path of community trauma together, albeit with different outcomes.

Use whatever time is available to learn more about trauma and how it impacts a child and their learning. Beacon House and Inner World Work both have free resources available. Betsy De Thiery also has some really good information to support trauma-informed schools.’

If you’re thinking of using mindfulness, Angela says to keep it light. She recommends resources such as Mindful Monsters cards to help children ground, teaching them only to live each day as it comes. Yoga for children can also bring children back to the breath, which is the crux of reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Further information

  • Inner World Work offers resources to carers and parents who are supporting a child who has suffered loss: www.innerworldwork.co.uk/
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Tania Tirraoro is a journalist and parent of two young men with autism. Tania is also autistic. She is the founder of www.specialneedsjungle.com, a parent-led website that offers information and resources about special needs and disabilities in children and young people. Tania is also on the Ofsted SEND Stakeholder Advisory Group.

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