Before COVID-19 it was widely recognised that children were struggling with their Social, Emotional and Mental health in a multitude of ways from academic and social pressures to adverse childhood experiences and trauma. COVID19 may have exacerbated exisiting challenges or created new challenges for young people. Many will have managed to process this situation well because, as this virus has highlighted, the experiences of lockdown and this pandemic have been felt in vastly different ways based on many factors including disadvantage. So how can, and how should we, support our young people on their return to school?

Collective Understanding
Children need to feel able to discuss what has happened and their fears for the future. This should be offered as class discussion if requested or one to one where possible. Some children may wish just to get on – this needs to be considered too. But for many getting a grasp of the key information of the pandemic and having a clear narrative of what has happened and why will help them to process the past and anticipate the future better. Both of these things will lead to reduced anxiety. Give children the opportunity to record questions on a display and work towards answering those you can over time.

Wellbeing Focus
On return to school there will be a temptation to try to “catch up” the lost time. Trying to immediately operate at 120% after (and still very much during) a national crisis will lead to poor standards of learning, emotional and behavioural challenges and teacher burnout. Much of the narrative around our need to sprint through the education process gathering as many facts as possible has been based on the need to stay ahead of our international competitors. Aside from the inconsistency of wanting to stay ahead of our partners abroad whilst also slashing funding from our budgets, our international competitors have also been under the same pressures and same crisis we have. We have a real opportunity to step back and set up our schools with a true wellbeing focus instead of including it as a bolt on to a system that naturally drives wellbeing down. The ends do not justify the means and this crisis will expose that further. A shared focus on wellbeing from schools, teachers, parents and young people will unite and motivate all to work together for their own and each other’s good based on the shared experience.

Some young people in our schools will be dealing with recent bereavement and potential ongoing health concerns of vulnerable relatives. These children may need more specialised support from schools. It would be a good idea to identify these children early on return and offer support on re-entry. They may not immediately require it so checking in will also be required. Charities such as Cruse offer counselling and advice and the Samaritans are always at the end of the phone. The following resources may also help children who are dealing with grief and loss:

Supportive Conversations
There will be times when young people may come to you for support. Understanding how to hold these conversations is key and most of us are not trained or naturally comfortable in these situations. It’s important to be ready to listen and to park judgement. Things that bother us vary and where an issue may seem like a small thing for you, it may be felt intensely by the child or young person. Normal challenges of day to day life may also seem too difficult to handle due to the stress container already being overloaded. Have a look at this article for more information on holding supportive conversations. The following resources can also guide you through talking with children and young people effectively. Some of the resources may also help as a common third to help make the conversation less intimidating for the young person.

Returning to school is a challenge after summer. Returning to school in a new school is also a challenge. Doing both of these after a months long period of trying to work from home in a national pandemic/crisis with uncertainty about the future is particularly difficult (understatement of the year!). In order to support children returning when there still (June 2020) remains a great deal of uncertainty, planning for a longer term return to normal may be helpful. Talk at length about what the school is working towards, what normal will look like. Heavy planning for shorter stages may have to redone over and over again as policies and situations change – this upheaval will add more uncertainty to a child’s already uncertain environment. By focusing on the end goal, all will know where we will be when some sort of normality returns.
Added to this, encouraging young people to visit the school websites, look at the school on Google Maps, drive past the school, practice getting into the routine of getting up at the right time and looking at transition materials can help. Dealing with change is always challenging for children (and adults) and a steady, accurate flow of information is needed to quieten anxieties. Creating a diary/timeline to write about the future return to school, filled with questions that can be asked and answers that can be provided by adults can also help. Normalisation is also key – children should know that it’s ok to be worried about a big change and some worry is ok, supported stress can help us to make real progress in our performance and our ability to handle pressure.

It can be helpful to have a model for looking at big changes and transitions in life. This may involve the following steps:
1. What do we know is definitely going to change?
2. What don’t we know about this change?
3. What can we find out about this change?
4. What can we not know about this change at the moment (the unexpected)?
5. What can we control?
6. What can’t we control?
7. What can we do to prepare for the change and reduce our anxieties?
8. What can other people do to help us?
You may be able to think of other steps and questions, but this is a good starting point to visualising the change in a safe way.
Some resources that might help the return to school include:

Wellbeing Planning
Link the 5 days of the week to the 5 keys of wellbeing, as shown here in this article. Adults need to be fully invested in this too – set the example! By planning to make wellbeing a central part of your day and week, this will have a positive effect on the overall wellbeing of all involved. Works for parents too!

Attachment in Bubbles
Children may be missing each other when separated out in different bubbles – try to give them the chance to interact with other bubbles in a safe way, through a glass window playing noughts and crosses or through a zoom call to another room. Within bubbles, establish unique routines, activities and a group name to create a sense of belonging within the room. This shared experience will extend beyond this pandemic and establish some strong bonds based on overcoming the adversity together in a national crisis. For more information about attachment see the resource below:

This page is being continually updated with new ideas and thoughts. If you have any ideas please feel free to get in touch!