Strategies for supporting pupil, staff and school wellbeing and resilience during COVID-19.

Senior Mental Health & Wellbeing Consultant - Liz Robson-Kelly | Worth-it

Liz Robson-Kelly
Educator, Positive & Organisational Psychologist
Managing Director of Worth-it CIC

As we enter January 2021, we find ourselves in yet another stage of the Coronavirus pandemic, causing much disruption, uncertainty and challenge for schools nationally. 

The current situation we are facing is having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing levels of many pupils and staff. We know from the research into wellbeing and resilience that, supporting the development of resilience is critical to maintaining wellbeing levels and prevent the onset of more serious mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Current Coronavirus challenges faced by schools

Schools are currently experiencing a VUCA environment. VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous cultures within organisations. However, the term VUCA can also apply to different contexts, such as communities, and even nations. Reflecting on these words, I am sure you can think of several examples of how they are playing out now. The uncertainty and ambiguous nature of the guidance and recommendations for schools regarding closures is a prime example.

This VUCA environment is causing significant challenge for schools, School Leaders and Designated Mental Health Leads. To support you we will be working through each element of VUCA and offering strategies that support wellbeing and develop resilience. Our aim is to support you to reframe this VUCA environment as a positive opportunity to develop resilience and wellbeing.

Earlier in the year, we ran a webinar to support mental health and wellbeing. Click here to watch.  

How a VUCA environment can impact on school wellbeing

Before we look at the opportunities that VUCA can provide in developing wellbeing and resilience, we first need to explore the VUCA framework in more detail.

Volatility

Volatility occurs because new information or developments emerge which change the fundamental situation or environment. This can be the school, home, local community or even national environment. 

Volatility also refers to the speed of change. Children, families, and schools are experiencing a raft of sudden and unexpected changes. Resulting in home life and learning becoming much more stressful for pupils during COVID-19 and the ongoing changes because of the pandemic. 

Reflection Question – How is volatility impacting on your staff, pupils and your school environment? 

Uncertainty

We are faced with unprecedented uncertainty on an almost daily or even hourly basis. This is hard to deal with as an adult, a teacher, or a school leader. Uncertainty in the VUCA framework is when the availability or certainty of information in events is unknown. 

A key part of uncertainty is related to people’s inability to understand what is going on, this is especially relevant for schools supporting children understand the rapid changes and uncertain situation we currently face.

Reflection Question – How is uncertainty impacting on your staff, pupils, and your school environment? 

Complexity

Complexity refers to the number of factors that we need to be considered in any given situation or environment. This includes their variety and the relationships between them. The more factors, the greater their variety and the more they are interconnected, the more complex an environment is. A good example to illustrate this would be to think about all the interconnections and relationships in a large secondary of four form entry primary school. 

COVID-19 and the current dynamic situation with school closures may be the most complex challenge that has faced schools to date, everyone is being impacted. Many systems and processes have been and will continue to be developed at a rapid pace. This can cause workload issues, raise stress levels, and be met with significant resistance by the people affected. 

Reflection Question – How is complexity impacting on your staff, pupils and your school environment? 

Ambiguity

Ambiguity describes a lack of clarity about how to interpret something. A situation is ambiguous, for example, when information is incomplete, contradicting or too inaccurate to draw clear conclusions. Ambiguity is the lack of clear meaning and the inability to decide because there are just too many options to choose from.

This is something school leaders are certainly experiencing now with the conflicting messages from various national bodies. Mixed messages, assumptions, conflicts of interest, and multiple demands all create an atmosphere of ambiguity that makes progress towards the common goal of supporting pupil and staff wellbeing even harder. 

Reflection Question – How is ambiguity impacting on your staff, pupils and your school environment? 

How VUCA provides an opportunity to develop resilience and wellbeing for schools

Resilience is only developed when adversity and or challenge is faced. The ability to develop resilience requires us to draw on a range of internal or external resources that can support the ability to manage the impact of the adversity to either ‘bounce back’ or even adapt and change for the better because of the challenge experienced. If you choose to focus on the opportunity it brings, each element of the VUCA framework provides an opportunity to develop resilience and wellbeing.

Uncertainty develops resilience by increasing your own or others ability to be comfortable with not having all the answers. Uncertainty provides an opportunity to connect on a human level and develop a shared Understanding of the challenging experience being faced. Doing this reduces fear and develops interpersonal connection, trust, empathy and belonging through their shared experience. These are crucial internal resources to develop resilience and can be important to cultivate in teams. The ability to work together and share ideas without fear of judgment can improve wellbeing and resilience.

Complexity provides an opportunity to gain Clarity. The desire to reduce the need for complex tasks and focus on what really matters right now to get the job done can also be a positive outcome. This can provide greater clarity and an opportunity to reduce unnecessary workload and obsolete tasks that no longer serve a purpose due to the changes made. 

Clarity can be developed by everyone. For example, small groups of staff teams can work on a specific task or project that requires them to bring clarity to a certain task or process, such as assessment processes or feedback. While the process of working to bring clarity through trusting your own and your team’s judgment and abilities, and coming together as a team builds collective self-efficacy, pride, and achievement. All of which are essential for wellbeing.

Ambiguity develops resilience by providing an opportunity to try things and make mistakes. Ambiguous situations require an ability to be Agile. Through being more flexible and adaptable and being able to adjust to the change required. While the ability to try things and make mistakes, learn from failures, grow, and adapt is important for the development of resilience. 

Volatility provides an opportunity to share a compelling Vision of the school environment you want to create or be part of. This could mean making wellbeing part of everyday school business and a place where wellbeing can be built for everyone that attends or works there. This can be done through collective goal setting and creating a shared vision and communicated understanding for your schools approach to wellbeing and resilience.

Reframing Challenge as an Opportunity with VUCA 2.0 

Although the situation may be challenging right now, the change it has brought about can provide an ideal opportunity to make changes for the better that can positively impact on wellbeing and build resilience. Adapted from the work of Bill George (Harvard Business School) a good example of this is reframing VUCA to VUCA 2.0. 

VUCA 2.0 allows you to focus on cultivating pupil, staff and school wellbeing by:

  1. Countering volatility with VISION – sharing the compelling vision and approach for developing the wellbeing of your school community
  2. Meeting uncertainty with UNDERSTANDING – developing acceptance, trust, empathy and belonging
  3. Reacting to complexity with CLARITY – collectively setting clear actions and goals, working in teams to reduce complex tasks and workload
  4. Counter ambiguity with AGILITY – Cultivating adaptable and flexible thinking to effectively manage change, by encouraging experimentation and facilitating autonomy

Reflection Question – What have you learned from this article that you can put into place to help you manage wellbeing and resilience? 

We know that times are challenging. We’re here to help.
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