Aberdeenshire Council’s principal educational psychologist delivered a workshop for local elected members recently to explain the lengths schools and practitioners across the local authority are going to in supporting the area’s most vulnerable children and young people throughout the pandemic.

From the onset of school closures in March 2020, the local authority’s inclusion, equity and wellbeing team quickly developed guidance to help school leaders in identifying vulnerable children, using a set of vulnerability markers to assess the needs of children and families with a view to providing appropriate levels of support.

During this time education officers and head teachers worked closely with children’s services social work to ensure the needs of vulnerable children were met.

Principle educational psychologist Carron Douglas explained: “While vulnerability markers were used as a starting point, each child has individual needs so schools used the principles of GIRFEC and their knowledge of individual children and young people, and where appropriate close collaboration with social work, to devise child-centred plans alongside families.”

The type of support offered to children and young people who were highly vulnerable during school closures has ranged from school attendance, to ongoing ‘Learning Pathway Plus’ arrangements (such as specialist, tailored outdoor learning experiences), to twice weekly virtual chats with a trusted staff member. The educational psychology, sensory support and english as an additional language services have also continued to offer support and advice to parents during this time.

These arrangements have been extended to more than 2,000 children and young people, plus many more who schools have made a particularly special effort to keep in touch with as learning from home became the norm once again.

Carron referenced a 'pandemic wall' many families are now experiencing in terms of their mental health, where they may have managed during the last lockdown but are struggling to cope this winter.

She also said: “There are so many heart-warming examples of staff members going above and beyond to support children and young people – from doorstep drop offs to themselves self-isolating to enable close contact with particularly vulnerable families.

“We know how important relationships are, particularly for those who have experienced trauma or find change particularly difficult. This is why we also set up ‘satellite hubs’ last time around to enable more localised support for those with particularly complex needs.”

Carron cites the creation of satellite hubs as her favourite example of dynamic team working and responding to local needs as they arose.

Helen James, head teacher of New Pitsligo School also joined elected members to offer some insight into her experience of setting up a satellite hub. She said: “We saw a pattern of concern from parents and needs beginning to develop and we addressed that through our satellite hub. For some of those with autistic spectrum condition, we understood that learning from home was becoming difficult but also recognised due to the nature of their learning style that a local childcare hub would have been too stressful.

“It was through working with Carron’s team that we weighed up risks, identified the most appropriate space and gathered a handful of staff from across the cluster who would be the familiar faces to our learners. Children adored the opportunity to come along and we quickly found that they understood each other’s needs more than even we could have. We continued to run a weekly group for these children from across the cluster from August and the older children are continuing to be supported at the moment too.”

Carron also explained some of the challenges children and young people faced when returning to school in August. For some getting back into a routine was a challenge, and others had enjoyed being at home and missed this. Overall, there has been an increase in the prevalence of poor mental health and the team is addressing this by setting up a free, confidential listening service to school pupils who will be able to book appointments online.

Carron added: “We’re aiming to provide a safe space for young people to talk through their concerns with trained counsellors.”

Cllr Gillian Owen, chair of Aberdeenshire Council’s education and children’s services committee was very pleased elected members could gain expert insight from Carron and Helen. She commented: “We know there is a vast amount of work going on behind the scenes daily to ensure children and young people can access appropriate levels of support with their learning and also their wellbeing.

“We are very well provided for in Aberdeenshire and I’d like to offer my sincere thanks not only to our inclusion, equity and wellbeing team but all our staff for every effort you make to nurture those all-important relationships. From a 1:1 to a simple voice message sent home that makes their day – it’s all so worthwhile.”

Parents and carers, as well as children and young people and staff, may find Aberdeenshire Council’s educational psychology service website particularly helpful at this time. Visit: https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/as/aberdeenshireeps/parent-information/

A helpline continues to run Tuesday to Thursday from 9am to 3pm if you would like to talk through any education or wellbeing concerns about a child or young person. Call 01779 403721.

You may also find NHS Grampian’s Psychological Resilience Hub useful: https://www.nhsgrampian.org/covid-19/covid-19-public-information/subpages/mental-health-support/what-is-the-grampian-psychological-resilience-hub/

For young people in secondary school in need of a little bit of extra support at this time, please get in touch with your guidance teacher in the first instance.

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