​The challenge facing schools and pupils

Page last reviewed: 04 March 2021

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.

This section of our guide on returning to school after the coronavirus lockdown breaks down a range of challenges for schools and pupils. 

This section of our guide on Coping with coronavirus and Disruption to Schooling breaks down the challenges that can be faced by schools and pupils.
 
As teachers and school leaders, you will likely be aware of the complex and traumatic experiences that your pupils may be dealing with as a result of the pandemic. This guide outlines and underscores the need for patience, flexibility and support for staff managing the return to school and the transitions between imposed restrictions. 
 
Although we have limited experience and evidence in responding to a situation of this magnitude, the evidence we do have suggests that the need for pastoral support, safeguarding and wellbeing services within schools is increasing. Some of the challenges are outlined in more detail below: 

Loss and bereavement

Some children and young people will have relatives or friends who have died during the pandemic, due to coronavirus or other illnesses. Even more will be aware of a relative or friend being seriously unwell or hospitalised. For other young people, there will be other types of loss – for example, parents who are furloughed or have lost their job, a home and/or school move, or they may have experienced long-term isolation from important figures in their life such as grandparents. 
 
Regardless of the type of loss, many will be experiencing this with a sense of grief. The way that children and young people respond to those feelings of loss and grief will differ widely – some may seem sad or withdrawn, others may appear irritable or angry.  
 
Some useful resources on bereavement, loss and grief are listed below:
 
For children and young people who were receiving support for mental and physical health problems prior to the pandemic, this will likely have been disrupted or cancelled. This loss of an important source of support may mean children and young people with pre-existing conditions are struggling. A survey from Young Minds showed that 80% of young people with an existing mental health problem felt their mental health had worsened during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Our piece on living with pre-existing mental health problems during COVID-19 provides advice on how to look after yourself during this time. 
 

Challenging experiences at home

Many children and young people already experience challenging home environments. These challenging circumstances will likely have been amplified by the measures in place to control the pandemic. Others will be facing challenging home experiences for the first time. These might include, but are not limited to: 

  • Domestic violence 

  • Abuse or neglect 

  • Family conflict 

  • Financial concerns, e.g. loss of employment for parents and guardians 

  • Worry about relatives who are key workers and continuing to work 

  • Caring responsibilities for family members 

  • Hunger and lack of nutrition 

  • Insecure housing, e.g. those living in residential care, hostels, or refuges.

The scale of the challenge isn’t yet clear, but with domestic violence charity Refuge reporting a 700% increase in calls to their helpline, it is likely that significantly increased pastoral care resources will be required well beyond the pandemic.  

Inequalities

A key challenge for schools is identifying the different experiences of their pupils and responding to the volume of safeguarding concerns that are likely to arise as pupils begin to open up to their teachers. Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to remember that these concerns could arise in relation to any child, not just those previously identified as vulnerable, and that many children will have had a range of challenging experiences.
 
The vast range of experiences that children and young people have had is a challenge in itself. Inequalities experienced, particularly during the weeks of school closure, will be felt for the foreseeable future, as gaps in attainment, physical and emotional health will have widened. For example, Natural England revealed clear inequalities for children engaging with nature, with 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds reporting spending less time outside since coronavirus compared with 57% of white children. Planning to provide extra academic, as well as pastoral support will be needed.

Uncertainty

The sudden and often inconsistent changes we have experienced during the pandemic may have led to  many children and young people feeling uncertain. Many pupils may worry that things which used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, may no longer be something they can rely on.
 
There may be a lack of confidence amongst young people in the adults in their lives. As they have seen adults struggle to agree about how to manage the crisis, their sense that they can rely on adults to keep them safe may have been diminished. 
 
Due to a potential lack of confidence amongst young people in the way that the pandemic has been dealt with by adults, they may be feeling uncertain about measures the school and community are taking to keep them safe. Regular coronavirus testing could cause pupils to feel anxious and distracted.
 
There may also be a great deal of uncertainty for parents and caregivers. Many families will be navigating a lot of different systems and guidelines as different measures are announced. The impact of further outbreaks on parents’ income and pupils’ attendance at school will be a source of worry for many families.

Transitions

As pupils’ education continues to be affected by the pandemic, with various restrictions in place, the usual preparation that would be done with pupils transitioning to the next school term or year will be lacking. This will be particularly challenging for those moving from primary to secondary school, those moving into exams years and those preparing to leave school.  

Read more information and access resources to support pupils during transition periods on the Mentally Healthy Schools website and from the Anna Freud Centre.

For those who are approaching the end of their time at school – whether they are considering transitions to college or university or looking for work – the impact of the virus and subsequent restrictions on admissions processes, exam procedures and employment prospects remains unclear, and many pupils are likely to worry about their future.  
 
Our guidance for young people, written with our MHF Young Leaders panel, has specific advice for school leavers.

Friendships and bullying

With social distancing measures – in and outside of school – friendships may have become strained or deteriorated. As peer groups are an important source of support for young people, this may mean that many will have lacked a vital source of support in managing the stresses of the pandemic. Many of us may be experiencing loneliness during this time, and children and young people may feel apprehensive about returning to school and reconnecting with their peers. Our Loneliness in Young People campaign, written with our MHF Young Leaders panel, provides tips for young people on what to do if you are feeling lonely.  
 
The nature of the crisis itself – around a contagious illness – is a potent opportunity for bullying to arise. Social distancing and handwashing measures are likely to still be necessary for some time and could provide fuel for bullying around potential “contagion”. It is important to be aware of the rise in incidents of racism around coronavirus. Pupils from Asian backgrounds may well have experienced racism and bullying about the perceived origin of the virus in China.

Safer at home

For some children and young people, unfortunately, school does not feel like a safe place to be and closures of schools may have been a welcome measure. For these pupils, the challenge of returning will not be what has happened whilst school was closed but the prospect of coming back. This may particularly be the case for pupils with physical and learning difficulties, whose needs may be more easily met at home.