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Wellbeing, grades, the future! How to support your kids

Back to school blues worse than normal? Queen Anne's head Julia Harrington explains why we need to play catch up on our kids' wellbing, not their grades.

Education, education, education! It’s a political football that gets kicked around by all governments. But after 18 months of academic, sporting and social disruption, what do our kids really need to succeed in life? What do they really need right now? Has the pandemic caused permanent problems? And should we be using this bump in the road to look at radical change?

So many unknowns. So many questions, good job I know someone with answers. Julia Harrington, Queen Anne’s trailblazing head who has lead the charge in neuroscience research into the teen brain at BrainCanDo, a charity she founded. Here’s how we can support our kids right now.


Teenagers leaning against the wall texting

The pandemic has been hard on young people. But we’re not all doomed. They’re tough, resilient and incredibly creative. But we must understand that they also bear the scars of the past 18 months. When the moving parts to their world break, they need their peers and community. All things that have been missing. So we’re seeing a lot of children suffering from anxiety. It’s time to reframe the problem.

Flip the focus from the negative, to the positives. Think of it as a lockdown debrief. Ask your kids what did they do well? What they didn’t not do so well? What they would have done differently?


Self advocacy is a essential to any mental health toolkit. Knowing that we are in charge of our own destiny gives individual control and a say in what is best for you. School children weren’t the most vulnerable, but they modified their behaviour to help the elderly. They took that responsibility seriously – sacrificing many of their rites of passage for the greater good. Many have developed a fear of bugs and germs. Children were super-diligent hand washers and staying in bubbles. They understood the responsibility on them to keep granny safe. Harness the hope.

Teenagers are naturally quite selfish. So they deserve some credit for pushing themselves to do the opposite of what their brain is telling them to do. Humans are very resilient creatures. We can survive trauma and eventually bob back up again. The bits that are painful need to be grieved and understood, but we can find a sense of strength.


Teenagers journal

It might push some out of their comfort zone, but journalling is brilliant for reflection and self-efficacy. Privately sharing how you feel about things helps to recentre. Everyone experiences stuff differently and it is vital to express those feelings and process them. Reflection journals have to be private and only shared when they feel comfortable. Learning to be grateful for things (big or small) is also an exercise worth trying. We run a Gratitude Project at Queen Anne’s and it has such a positive impact on the girls’ mental health and wellbeing. So regularly noting down what you are grateful for pushes that positive mindset.


woman in face mask screaming

The student voice is so powerful. They have a lot to offer and need to feel they have a say in how they come out of this. Be careful of hidden cracks that could rear later on. We have seen more cases of self harm and vulnerability caused by a lack of interaction. The government focus and funding right now is centred around academic catch up, but mental health and wellbeing in schools should be the priority. There’s so much talk of a Lost Generation – it’s not really an issue in the private sector – but let’s see what we need for the future. You can’t lose all that time in school and expect students, parents and teachers to paper over the cracks. It’s completely unrealistic.

To be honest, I object to the government’s obsession with ‘catching up’. What exactly are they supposed to be catching up on? We shouldn’t be going back to 20th century assessment in 19th century formats. We have a huge opportunity to really think about what our young people need to learn at school – and so something radically different. I’m not sure they need to know the ins and outs of Shakespeare’s work.


Marked wooden school door with metals sign Exam Room Enter

A project based curriculum that hones critical thinking, skills-based learning and developing the ability to read situations through meta skills and emotional intelligence will be integral to their futures. If you could get it right, it will be away that’s good for everyone. Politicians don’t know where to start. But teachers do. We’re a worthy bunch of professional experts. Tap into that resource and we could discover a more suitable future that will help them to recover.

Exams suit some and not others. Over the past two years some GCSE and A Level students have felt they hadn’t had their day in court. Could they have done better? We put assessments in place with improvement goals. The real progress was great. But Imposter syndrome creeps in. When the evidence is less clear or access to technology was poor, you get that feeling of being cheated. Even before Covid the pressure was getting much hotter. The pandemic, academic pressure and rise of social media has created the perfect storm.


Girl jumping for joy in exercise gear by a shabby cream wall

The pandemic has forced through change at a rapid rate. Working from home has become normal. The realisation that we don’t have to spend hours on the train is liberating. Life can be more flexible and we don’t need to be stuck on this hamster wheel. The cost of Covid has been high but there has been kindness in communities and faceless scientists who have created life saving vaccines have been celebrated. Let’s break old habits. Get enough people with enough energy and change will happen.

Queen Anne’s School has created Covid Anxiety Workshops for parents, students and schools. The aim is to help us understand what Covid has done to us and how we can scaffold our way out of it through self hypnosis, reflection journals, activities and more.

You can read the Muddy review of Queen Anne’s in Caversham here.

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