Supporting pupils to return to school

Page last reviewed: 4 August 2020

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 gives practical advice, strategies and activities for teachers. 

As a teacher, you are likely to be already aware of the experiences that your pupils are having, and as schools reopen, the specific challenges that your school community is facing will become clearer

Supporting your pupils through this transition will draw on many of the skills you use day-to-day to provide emotional and academic advice and guidance. The following two sections aim to build on your knowledge and experience, offering you further guidance on things to keep in mind when planning the transition and talking to pupils, followed by more practical tools and strategies to rebuild relationships and support pupils. 

Things to keep in mind

One size will not fit all 

Different pupils within the same class will have had very different experiences of the lockdown period. They will also have varying levels of coping skills and resilience in dealing with those experiences. Having an open mind about what pupils may be going through and how they will be coping with it will be important.  

You are part of a team 

Some of the challenges facing you as a teacher may feel overwhelming, but other teachers in your school, community and around the world are facing the same issues. Observing appropriate limits around pupil confidentiality, draw on other teachers and school leaders for support and guidance. Share what you are learning with them. 

Your team is wider than just your school community 

Other agencies, third sector organisations and community groups may be able to offer support.  

Different emotional responses 

Given that there are many kinds of loss that pupils may have experienced over their time away from school, you may see different kinds of emotional responses. Children and young people will respond in different ways to challenging experiences. The same child may display different responses from day-to-day.  

Read more about children and young people’s responses to grief here

Don’t dismiss concerning behaviour 

When something momentous happens, it can be tempting to see everything in that context. However, whilst the return to school is likely to elicit some challenging behaviour from some pupils, we shouldn’t ignore signs that something more serious is going on. Our Head of Programmes, psychotherapist Jane Caro highlights some signs that you should refer a pupil for extra mental health support: 

  • A significant change in mood that lasts longer than a few days. Signs may include low energy, withdrawal from social contact with friends, difficulty concentrating in lessons, being tearful. 

  • A significant change in weight – either increase or decrease – as appetite is often affected by mental health struggles.  

  • Tiredness lasting for more than a few days – may indicate changes in sleep patterns which can be linked to mental health concerns. 

  • Angry outbursts that seem out of character. 

  • Secretive behaviour, for example around mealtimes or PE lessons. You might notice signs that the young person is avoiding their body ‘being seen’ in a way that is unusual for them. 

  • Any signs of self-harming behaviour e.g. visible signs of cutting or bruising on the skin.

Learning might have to wait 

Pupils may not feel able to jump straight back into learning immediately when they return to school. Disrupted ability to focus is a common experience for children and young people who have experienced bereavement or trauma. Immediately returning to scheduled lessons might lead to disruptive behaviour as pupils get used to seeing each other again. Finding time to allow them to work through these conversations and get ready to learn could be helpful, if you are able to schedule them in. However, it is also important to acknowledge that some pupils, particularly those who are entering exam years, may be anxious to start learning again and make sure they are making up for lost time.  

Whilst we anticipate that lesson time might feel challenging for pupils as they are asked to focus on learning again, it is also important to remember that unstructured time in school (break and lunch times, before and after school) may also be a difficult time for some children.  

Attachments have been disrupted 

Children and young people may have experienced disrupted attachments during the lockdown – separation from parents and grandparents, for example. Attachment is a concept that we often think of in relation to infants, but it is relevant throughout our lives. Even older pupils have attachment relationships with key adults in their lives, as well as their friends and peers. If these relationships are strained, disrupted or suspended completely, children and young people will likely experience a level of emotional distress. 

You may not think of your relationships with your pupils in those terms but taking steps to rebuild the attachment that has been disrupted may be helpful. This could include spending more time with classes you have particular responsibility for (e.g. tutor groups) or providing unscheduled time for pupils to talk to staff and each other and rebuild relationships. 

If you have time before school starts again, you could read more about attachment. A good starting point might be the Mentally Healthy Schools website or the Attachment Leads Network

Trauma 

It may sound like dramatic language to use, but the coronavirus situation has been a shared experience of trauma for communities as well as for individuals. There is a need to process and understand exactly what has happened, to grieve the losses that the community has experienced, and to work together to find a way to move forward. Children and young people who are returning to school following traumatic experiences such as bereavement or abuse will need to be supported by teachers and schools that are actively listening, understanding, and responding in appropriate ways.  

Trauma-informed care is an approach aimed at creating an environment within schools and organisations that reduces harm and promotes healing for individuals who have experienced trauma. You can find some useful resources and information about this approach at the  Trauma-informed Schools’ website

Additionally, resources to support communities after natural disasters or episodes of violence may provide useful ideas for responding, such as the Emerging Minds community trauma toolkit.  

Practical tools, strategies and activities

Acknowledge what has happened 

Whilst dwelling on the coronavirus situation may not be helpful, it is important that we acknowledge the scale of what we have all been through over these past few months. It is important to find a balance between respecting the enormity of the situation, the sacrifices that people have been asked to make and the losses they have experienced without sensationalising or dwelling on the situation. Indeed, you may need to go further and offer a clear and sensitive explanation of what has happened and why – some pupils may not have been well informed by their caregivers about the situation. Clarity about what has happened and what the ongoing risks are may be helpful.  

What to try – lots of resources were produced for talking to children of different ages about the coronavirus. You might want to use one of these to start a conversation amongst pupils about their experiences.
  • Early Years: Sesame Street have some useful videos and resources for younger children about health emergencies and dealing with worries. 
  • Primary school: You could read Axel Scheffler’s book about coronavirus together. It’s free to download here. 
  • Secondary: YoungScot have a wide range of articles for young people about coronavirus, including clear explanations of the situation and “jargon busters” of some important terms.

Many of our coronavirus resources are now also available in a range of languages including Arabic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Somali, French and Urdu

Let them talk 

The return to school may be the first contact that pupils have had with each other in many weeks. Launching straight back into the usual timetable is likely to be challenging, as pupils have had a long period of time away from the usual daily routine. They may also have lots of thoughts and questions about the time away from school.  

 

Of course, there is also a need to make sure pupils begin catching up on work they have missed. Gradually phasing in lessons, balancing more academic lessons with creative and vocational ones, could be one approach. 

What to try – if you have the option to go off-timetable for some or all of the initial return to school period, you might want to do this. This will allow pupils to refamiliarise themselves with the rhythm of the school day. 

  • Primary school – extended “circle time” check ins as a whole class can be a helpful way to share experiences and re-establish skills like listening to others, turn-taking, and concentration. 
  • Secondary school – you could extend registration or form tutor periods, if you have them, to allow pupils to reconnect. You could also adapt activities that you usually do during the primary to secondary transition process for other year groups, such as “getting to know you” activities.  
  • All ages – if you’re working with small groups or 1-1 with pupils who may need more support, our Time for Us activity pack may be a helpful starting point. It includes activities designed to get children and young people thinking about what they find stressful, the coping strategies they have and their support system.  

Offer individual opportunities to talk 

Doing things as a group may help repair lost connections, it is important to make sure that pupils who need it have a chance to talk to you individually. Even those who have had a relatively straightforward experience of the lockdown may appreciate the chance to reconnect.  

More importantly, there may have been things that happened at home that you don’t know about. Remember, children and young people may start talking about a topic, then stop again, only to resume later. Make sure there are ongoing opportunities for them to come back and resume the conversation. 

What to try 

  • If you have a class that you work with regularly, e.g. in primary school settings, secondary tutor groups or house groups, you might want to schedule 1-1 check ins with each pupil.
  • Alternatively, you could make an “office hour” available for pupils to come and see you if they choose. Even if you are not a form tutor, guidance teacher or head of year, you may be the person that some pupils feel most comfortable talking to about their experiences.  
  • Keep offering these opportunities over the weeks and months after school starts again, not just in the first few days – it may take time for pupils to feel confident talking to you about their worries.  
  • Ask ‘open’ questions which allow the child or young person to respond in a way that feels right for them rather than closed, yes/no questions that tend to have an obvious “right” answer and which can stop the child or young person elaborating on their answer.
  • If possible, try to initiate potentially difficult conversations at a time when you have time and energy to respond appropriately and sensitively. Children and young people will pick up on queues that we’re rushing or don’t really have time to listen to everything they want to tell us.

Be positive

Whilst it is incredibly important to acknowledge the challenges and losses that we have all experienced due to the virus, a positive approach to the future will likely be helpful. Focusing on building strong relationships and looking to the future with confidence may help alleviate some of the worry that pupils will experience. 

What to try 

  • You could initiate a discussion amongst your pupils about positive things that have come out of the situation. Acknowledging that lots of bad things happened, encourage them to look for good things that happened. Ask them to consider how we might keep some of those good things going as life slowly returns to “normal”. For example, people used their cars a lot less and pollution went down - we could commit to walking and cycling more. It is important to emphasise that recognising the positive does not invalidate or downplay the negatives.

Build connections 

One thing that pupils may have lost over the extended break from school is a sense of belonging to the school community and connection with others. Whilst we all experienced the lockdown period alone, in our homes, it was a situation that nonetheless affected everybody in society. An activity that the whole class – or even the whole school – can take part in might help rebuild pupils’ sense of connection to each other and the school.  

This may be of particular importance if classes or year groups are separated into small groups for at least some of the year. Even if they are physically not able to interact, a visual reminder of their connectedness as a school community may be helpful. 

What to try 

You could also try some of the art activities below, as a whole class or school.

  • Activities that involve all pupils, and allow them to focus on their strengths, will be particularly helpful. Try creating a scavenger hunt for them to complete in teams, with different activities and puzzles – some might involve writing, drawing, physical challenges, problem solving or logic.
  • If you have new pupils joining your class – for example, incoming first year pupils in secondary schools – you might final alternative ways to build connection. A postcard to each pupil from their future form tutor, head of year or guidance teacher, or video “interviews” with their new teachers could be helpful.

Look to the arts 

The creative arts can often help us express feelings that we struggle to put into words or help us feel less alone in difficult feelings. Pieces of music, visual art and drama that reflect some of the feelings that children might be having can be a useful way to start discussions – they don’t have to be about coronavirus specifically. Creating art can also bring people together. 

What to try 

  • Creating a piece of art as a whole class (or even as a whole school) can help build connections and create a sense of belonging. Something simple like a picture made up of individual handprints is easy for pupils of all abilities to access. It can be displayed in the classroom as a physical reminder of the class’s joint identity.
  • Using art and music in the classroom when talking about feelings might be helpful. Mindful Music have some songs on their website for younger children that you can use when talking about worries.
  • Singing as a group can help people feel connected – try a song you all already know, follow a “singalong” video on YouTube or even encourage pupils to get creative and write new lyrics, based on their experiences or how they are feeling, to the tune of a popular song they already know.

Be mindful 

Pupils may be dealing with more worries, thoughts and stress than usual when they return to school. Mindfulness is a useful skill to help them manage those feelings. Some skills can be practiced as a class, such as breathing exercises. You can also explain to them about the importance of learning to focus on what is happening right now – dwelling on the past or speculating about the future can make worries worse.  

What to try 

  • Lead the class in a short breathing exercise and remind them that they can use this (without closing their eyes) to help them focus if they feel worried.
  • Have the class think of a list of things they can do when they are feeling worried and display it somewhere in the classroom. This might include “write my worry down”, “think about someone that makes me feel safe” or “notice my senses – what can I see, hear, taste, smell or feel?”
  • Use a “timeout” system more flexibly, where pupils can take some quiet time to read or rest when they need it. In secondary schools, if you have a quiet space for pupils to use, you might consider making this available to all pupils, more of the time, in the initial return to school period.
  • Have a “worry jar” in the classroom, or a postbox on your office door where pupils can let you know what’s bothering them.
  • Look after yourself – teachers, like many frontline workers, are asked to take responsibility for the wellbeing of others. In these particularly challenging times, this can cause huge strain on your own mental health. To best support your pupils, it is also important that you take care of your own wellbeing.