Managing uncertainty: looking for opportunities
Duncan Byrne, head at Loughborough Grammar School, outlines the different ways pupils can manage their anxiety during the lockdown.
It is very easy for fear to become our overriding emotion as we digest the uncertainty that has invaded our lives over the past month. We are faced with uncertainty over the health of our nearest and dearest, economic uncertainty on an individual and macro level, and uncertainty over what the future holds. The latter is felt particularly by our oldest students, not just in the short-term with concerns over their GCSE and A-level examinations, but also over how universities and the employment market will respond further down the line.
Unfortunately, human evolution has hard-wired our brains to react to uncertainty with fear. For our cavemen forebears, whatever was lurking in the bushes could be a matter of life and death. The brain developed by handing over its response to uncertainty to the limbic system, where our fight or flight mechanism has its roots. This instinct has been essential to the long-term survival of the human race, but can be counter-productive when we need to respond to the unexpected in a more rational way.
In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we therefore need conscious effort to escape from the negative feelings engendered by this inevitable uncertainty. In both my final assembly with my students prior to lockdown, and in my subsequent audio messages, I have spoken about ‘controlling the controllables’. We all know that it makes sense to fret only about those things over which we exercise any influence through the decisions and actions we might take. However, achieving this is more easily said than done. Nevertheless, the more we can model this behaviour for our young people by focusing on what we can influence, and putting what we can’t to one side, the better. Loughborough Grammar School has been using this approach with our communications with Year 11 and 13 boys. When our lockdown commenced, they had no idea of how their examination grades would be calculated. We told them, however, that what they could control was to consolidate their knowledge of the subjects they have been studying for the past two years. In using the Easter holiday to undertake some sensible revision, they would be as well prepared as they could be for the consequences of future decisions made for them by government, universities and others. Understanding now that anyone dissatisfied with the grades received will be permitted to sit the exams in the autumn, our students have done as much as they could to retain some control over their academic destiny.
A much-quoted prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr seems appropriate at this juncture:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
The second way to banish our anxiety is to be proactive in looking for opportunities in our lives and thinking about how we can have a positive effect on others. I have read a great deal already about how Grammar School families are actively enjoying spending more time with one another. Several parents have commented that they have rediscovered some of the things that they hadn’t really done as a family for two or three years, such as playing board games and watching films together. In my household it has been the Great Loughborough Bake Off, encouraged by my sons’ tutors. It has been rather joyous to see the kitchen covered in chocolate, eggs, flour and caster sugar, even if enthusiasm for washing-up has been less impressive.
There is a considerable body of research providing evidence that helping others is beneficial for our own mental health. It is really gratifying that the adversity this country is facing is making so many people think about what they can do to support those less fortunate than themselves. During the holiday, I have also been gladdened by the uplifting stories of how my students are contributing to their local communities. A number have been delivering groceries to self-isolating neighbours, and even making them meals. One has written no fewer than 128 ‘kindness’ postcards to distribute to homes of older people as he takes his daily constitutional. Another noted the long shifts of those working at the care home opposite his house, and decided to bake cookies for the hard-pressed staff. Finally, in a collaborative enterprise, members of the Eco-Committee have been creating ecobricks: bottles stuffed fill of plastic waste. These ecobricks will help us add to the number of benches on campus made entirely out of waste that would otherwise go to landfill.
During this period, we should try to derive joy from the mundane: cooking, gardening, birdsong, our mandated daily walk. Doing something creative or learning a new skill will also contribute to good mental health during our isolation, and we have had some great feedback from pupils about new musical instruments being learned, models being constructed and computer programs being written. Again, exerting some control over individual projects will help our young people to feel more in control of their lives as a whole. If instead your child is glued to a screen and achieving little, try to reset expectations now. We may be in this situation for some time yet.