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Technology and mental health support: How can a locally developed wellbeing app effectively support remote education?

Mental health support byImplementing a new mental health app during lockdownownImplementing a new mental health app during lockdown
Tim Milburn, Deputy Head at Harrogate Grammar, shares his experience of implementing a new mental health app during lockdown, which he studied in depth for his masters dissertation. 

The inevitable, far reaching grip of COVID 19 reached schools across the nation in March 2020 and led to the longest period of enforced closure in post war Britain. As the education sector moved swiftly to remote learning concerns about the effect this crisis would have, on the mental health of a generation of young people, were rapidly mounting. Whilst young people moved to their new classrooms of bedrooms, dining rooms and gardens, powering up their laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, one of the key emerging question was how would mental health and wellbeing now be supported?

Case study: Harrogate Grammar School in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England

At Harrogate Grammar School, a large secondary school where all students and staff have access to a mobile device provided by the school, we have looked at ways to use technology as a further means of supporting our young people with their mental health and wellbeing. In the Autumn of 2019, we partnered with Tranquiliti, a company that offers mental health and wellbeing solutions for schools, to develop a service through an application, initially trialling it with one Year 9 group.

As school closure became imminent, we, like every other senior leadership team, up and down the land, began planning the transference of school life onto remote platforms. Whilst teaching and learning was the main and immediate priority, we recognised the need to maintain a level of pastoral care that would ensure our students were safe and well at a time of great worry and uncertainty. The safeguards that school offers children and young people were, to a large extent, lost when schools had to close their doors. 

Therefore, the management of wellbeing and mental health for children and young people, including the effects of isolation, loss of motivation and disconnect from their school community, was made more arduous. It was against this back drop, and because of the relationship that had been forged with Tranquiliti, that the possibility of developing a technological solution to wellbeing through this unprecedented time was explored.

The connection had come about, in part, because of the school’s own journey with mental health and wellbeing. We were in the process of completing the Carnegie Centre of Excellence Schools Mental Health Award and I had been supported by the school and Red Kite Learning Trust, to complete the MA Leadership of School Mental Health and Wellbeing. A member of our own school community put us in touch with Tranquiliti’s founders to see if we could work together on developing a service. Those initial meetings and conversations with the founders were some of the most important in what was to come.

 

We established a shared vision of what mental health and wellbeing support should and could look like in school, how a service needed to fit within the culture of the whole school community but agree that a significant investment of time and testing was needed to ensure that it was safe, engaging and would add value to the user.

Despite our commitment of time to shape the service school closure provided an accelerant to the initial agreed trial. Through the generosity of Tranquiliti we were able to offer all our students, within three weeks of closure, a wellbeing service, delivered through an application on their mobile device, with the following two functions:

1. Check-in questions – These would be set each week, focus on mental health and wellbeing but could also be set by the school. The results would be aggregated and shared with the students to help normalise feelings and with the school’s leadership team to help review and adapt provision.

2. Provide support materials – Within the application students would have access to a range of materials, including articles, videos and links to websites that could help them manage their own wellbeing and mental health.

Through this much larger trial of the application both Tranquiliti and the school continued to work together in shaping this service. It also gave an opportunity to see how far this type of m-Health (mobile health) service could support students during a period of enforced social isolation and at a time when mental health and wellbeing could worsen.

The application was launched through a virtual assembly and communication through the student bulletin and email. The application remained available throughout the 17 weeks of school closure. Onboarding (downloading and registration) increased over time, peaking at 743 users, just under half the number students engaging in remote learning. Despite the challenge of not being able to speak directly with students about the purpose and benefit of using it, school and Tranquiliti were pleased with the level of engagement, especially as it would provide statistically significant insights through the ‘Check-in questions.’

The service met an objective of providing a universal offer in supporting students during an unprecedented period of their education. Although not all students took up the offer, we have determined this to be the result of a multitude of factors, without a clear single cause. Interestingly though, when we surveyed a small group of students in September a number of them told us that they didn’t feel they need this support, that they had sufficient means to cope but were glad there was the service available should they have needed it. For those that did use it they were able to tell us of its benefits. The ability to connect with school and compare their own feelings against their peer group enabled some to normalise their own feelings.

A surprising outcome of the trial was that the inbuilt resources were underused in comparison to the number of registered users. Again, determining an overriding reason for this has been difficult. Some found them hard to find within the app, some didn’t feel the need to use them and others wanted more personalised support that the bank of resources could not offer. However, the weekly ‘Check-in questions’ showed us that when students had the opportunity to speak directly to an adult, which we had created in a series of Tutor Review meetings, they were highly valued. This personal connection, something we do every day in normal circumstances, seemed to be the part of school life that students missed most and appreciated greatly when it was returned, albeit on a video call. This has also given further development opportunities for Tranquiliti to harness this element within the wellbeing service. 

Whilst there have been some benefits to the user during this period, it has also been of value to the Senior Leadership Team. The insights data provided by the ‘Check-in questions’ helped the strategic management of remote education, indirectly supporting student wellbeing. We were able to acknowledge and respond to the worries around motivation and managing workload in our subsequent communications with students. We were also able to share this data with faculty leaders and in turn classroom teachers, so they had greater context about their students and the conditions they were facing. We also felt that we had a better understanding of what students had been through so that when we were able to open our doors again our approach was right.

The period of remote learning from March to July in 2020 brought about some of the most significant challenges that school leaders have ever faced. As whole school curricular was shifted onto remote platforms the welfare and care of students was having to be managed without being able to see young people. No amount of leadership training or governmental guidance could have prepared schools for the challenges this would bring. The first lockdown has shown what can be achieved within schools, in the face of such significant duress. The plans for provision have sadly had to be resurrected in many schools during 2020/21.

 Although we have not been able to offer the application again, as it is going through an intense period of re-development as a result of the trail, we have been able to use the experience and modify our remote learning plans whilst ensuring that both student connection and voice remain throughout.

 

Adversity often provides an opportunity for creativity and innovation

This is one example of the way a school and company have made the best use of a challenging situation to create something that added value. The experience has demonstrated what can be achieved in this field, even when facing such extreme circumstances. This has been largely possible because the two collaborators in this project already had an established working partnership. This was not only helpful in the practical element of pushing out the service so quickly but also there was trust, a shared understanding and vision of how technology could be used to drive support for mental health in schools. The successes of this trial, for this period, will push Tranquiliti, with the support of Harrogate Grammar School and other schools it has since recruited, to make improvements to the service drawing upon this experience.

The impact of COVID 19 on education, mental health and wellbeing will be studied for many years to come and it yet maybe a long time before we can really measure its affect. Although it is quite difficult to quantify the specific benefits of this application, for this group of students, during a first national lockdown, this service has certainly given students a voice and perhaps allows us to think, in contrast to the old English proverb that they must be seen and not heard, in fact, when they can’t be seen they must be heard even louder.

Tim Milburn (@GetTimGoing)
Tim Milburn (@GetTimGoing)

tmm@harrogategrammar.co.uk
Deputy Headteacher
Harrogate Grammar School

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