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HeadStart helping children with COVID anxiety

"Worry feels like when your tummy is whirry."

"It's like when you go round a roundabout!"

Sound familiar? The past six months have been anxious for us all.

The smart description of worried feelings above comes courtesy of a seven-year-old from a Middlesbrough primary school.

The mental health of our children and young people matters to us all.

The positivity and hope children radiate is heart-warming, and for parents and carers life affirming, but sometimes children struggle and like everybody they can find life hard.

Unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic and its ability to turn lives upside down by affecting the health of those around us and restricting daily life and the things we love has impacted on many children and young people in Middlesbrough.

As Middlesbrough children returned to classrooms at the beginning of September, schools welcomed back many young people whose mental health had been adversely affected by the challenges of lockdown.

Fortunately, there is lots of support available to young people either through their schools or through other resources.

HeadStart South Tees, which is funded by Middlesbrough Council, the Tees Valley Clinical Commissioning Group and Nesta, has worked with 0-19 year olds since 2013.

It supports children to build emotional resilience, helping them cope in challenging situations and achieving good emotional health.

Year 5 pupils at St Alphonsus primary school are being supported with their anxiety arising as a result of the pandemic.  

One pupil articulated this by saying: "Worry feels like when you want to cry but the tears don't come."

Another said: "You can feel worry in your head, your head just feels full and you can't concentrate."

Having the opportunity to explore these feelings and develop coping strategies and relaxation techniques is helping pupils.

Programme manager Wendy Kelly explains how her service has rapidly responded to the current situation: "We have supported thousands of children and young people at home and in school in a variety of new ways including producing newsletters with lots of helpful advice for children and the adults in their lives, ensuring all schools and colleges can access resilience resources and developing bespoke Covid-19 sessions in schools.

"The sessions started at the beginning of September and are delivered in partnership with TEWV, The Junction, Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind and The Link and our early evaluations show that children are embracing the new skills they are learning and really enjoying the sessions.

"The sessions are tailored toward the age ranges of the children we work with. Helping very young children to understand and talk about how they are feeling and recognising when they feel anxious is key to the sessions we deliver in primary and secondary schools and colleges."

Going to a new school

Returning to school after a break is a challenge for most children, but going to a brand new ‘big' school with lots of new and older children, unfamiliar teachers and with the added pressures of Covid-19 will have worried the most confident 11-year-olds.

HeadStart has been working with year 7 students across Middlesbrough secondary schools to support them with their transition.

Amber Storey, Associate Assistant Head Teacher of Trinity Catholic College, has found the sessions really beneficial: "The transition sessions were excellent in supporting the emotional wellbeing of our new year 7 pupils.

"Equally, it was useful to support any anxieties around returning to school post-Covid-19 by providing a focused supportive environment where students could explore strategies to support their transition.

"Our pupils really enjoyed their sessions and reported that it helped them feel supported in their transition to secondary school."


The HeadStart team has worked closely with schools across the town and through its HeadStarter Young People educational pathways has trained 826 young people of all ages to become mental health champions in their schools.

HeadStart's young ‘Mental Health Champions' are enthusiastic about the importance of the programme and mental health support.

One tells us: "I really believe that training and learning about mental health and stuff like this will help not just me but my friends and my family. I want to learn loads more about all this because it really can affect anyone in their life.

"I think it's good that it's always in the media as it will make sure that people still talk about it and that it's in the open."

Another adds: "The staff here really do try and help but sometimes they can't. Stuff happens and you don't really want to chat to them as I would rather they didn't know my business. I think it is really important to have good friends that will listen."

The children's experiences are supported by their teachers.

Kay Venis from Abingdon Primary School said: "There is no doubt that the focus through HeadStart on wellbeing and resilience has had a positive impact on the culture of the school.

"Staff have increased awareness of wellbeing, children's holistic health and ways to promote these are threaded throughout the school day."

The message from staff at HeadStart, from our schools and importantly from Middlesbrough children is that there is always help available to anyone who needs it.

No matter if you think your worries are big or small, your friends, teachers, parents, HeadStart South Tees and its partners are always ready to listen.

Tips, help and support

The HeadStart team have lots of great tips to help reduce anxiety.

A good start is limiting the amount of news and social media people and children watch.

Using relaxation and breathing techniques and taking time out can also help people feel settled. There are lots of free guided meditations and yoga online, including Cosmic Kids which is ideal for younger children.

In addition there are lots of tips for parents and young people on coping in the current situation via the NHS Every Mind Matters campaign.

Kooth offers bespoke support for those aged 11 to 18. Kooth is staffed by fully trained and qualified counsellors who are available until 10pm, 365 days a year.

An online resilience resource is available for young people aged 15 and upwards at Smart Moves Middlesbrough.

Headstart South Tees has a new website coming soon. To find out more about support available visit the Middlesbrough Children Matter page.

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