Back to school: A headteacher's checklist

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

September is upon us and pupils are returning to school – some after more than five months away. National Leader of Education Helen Frostick considers how we can ensure we meet the pastoral needs of our pupils post-lockdown


The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented and unexpected challenges to children’s mental health and wellbeing. A majority of pupils were out of mainstream education for more than five months, meaning that children lost access to crucial support services and experienced isolation from friends, family and trusted adults.

As a direct consequence, pupils returning to school in September may be experiencing a variety of emotions and mental health challenges, such as low mood, anxiety or depression. For some pupils, returning to school will not be welcome and they will need reassurance and encouragement.

The Headteacher Update and SecEd Back to School Guide on student wellbeing outlined many of these mental health considerations and other risks, offering a wealth of advice, and is worth a read (2020).


Pupil meetings

At the beginning of term, a meeting with a familiar member of staff will help to reassure and settle in the most vulnerable pupils. Key points to consider during these check-in sessions include:

  1. Be aware of the emotional needs of children with SEND in particular.Provide clear and provide factual information.
  2. Be aware of the emotional cues you exhibit.
  3. Listen and acknowledge.
  4. Create a safe and supportive environment.

Specialist support is still accessible. Schools are encouraged to continue referring to their local CAMHS. The quicker route may remain through GPs. Both services may provide support remotely. Local CAMHS will also have signposting information on their websites.

NHS trusts have established 24-hour mental health helplines in many areas, aimed at people of all ages. Most importantly continue to refer through your local children’s services if concerns are around safeguarding.


Safeguarding

As part of the monitoring of the most vulnerable pupils’ attendance, schools will have lists of pupils who did not engage with remote learning and where attempts by the school to make contact during lockdown, either by email or telephone, failed. The families of these pupils will be at the top of the list to offer support to on their return to school. However, some of them may not return to school.

Although the government has decided that attendance will be mandatory, some parents may not feel that school is safe for their children, or may take it as an opportunity for non-attendance. The attendance of these pupils will most probably, have been spiky throughout their time at school anyway.

These pupils will be cause for concern and will need significant additional support with their transition back into the school environment in the first days or weeks of term.

At St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in Richmond, the teachers and the SENCO produced lists of children deemed to be in this category towards the end of the summer term. The class teachers for this coming academic year then attempted to make contact to introduce themselves. They also asked the families if they had any questions or concerns about managing the return to school in September.

However, not all of the families were reachable. As such, at the beginning of the autumn term, members of staff will call home to try to reassure these families and to give a sense of continuity. If the calls are not answered it is best to leave a message offering the opportunity to speak to the class teacher should they wish to.

INSET day will be an opportunity to invite parents and children in to help with transition a day earlier if it will help. This will give children an opportunity to see the new classroom and to understand the safety measures and any news rules that are in place.


Talking about mental health

From September 2020, relationships and health education is mandatory in primary schools. Having said this, the government – acknowledging the disruption caused by the pandemic – has said that schools can have until the summer term to begin full teaching of the new statutory curriculum should they need this time to finalise their preparations.

This area of the curriculum offers schools the opportunity to focus on mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, the curriculum brings with it new requirements for teaching mental health and wellbeing. Statutory guidance explains how this knowledge will benefit pupils: “Young people are increasingly experiencing challenges. The new subject content will give them the knowledge and capability to take care of themselves and receive support if problems arise.” (DfE, 2019)

A training module is available to use designed by schools and clinical experts and will improve the confidence of teachers delivering such sensitive content. Published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2020) it recognises the importance of supporting pupils’ mental health and wellbeing at this time.

Returning to school will help many pupils to reduce their anxiety about coronavirus as resuming routines provides stability. However, schools should still prepare for how they will support those pupils who:

  • Continue to have anxieties related to the virus.
  • Really enjoyed the home learning experience and are now unsure or worried about returning to school.
  • Have found the long period at home hard to manage.
  • Are subject to safeguarding concerns.
  • Make safeguarding disclosures after returning to school.
  • Have lost family members to the virus.
  • Are currently transitioning to a new educational phase.

Within the relationships and health education curriculum, teachers must ensure that pupils have opportunities to develop coping mechanisms and ways to self-care. Important approaches include:

  • Offering opportunities to talk about their experiences.
  • One-to-one opportunities to talk to a trusted adult if the classroom environment is not suitable for all pupils.
  • Teaching certain topics in relation to coronavirus, such as how pupils can stay alert.
  • Encouraging renewing and developing friendships.
  • Offering an enriching developmental programme of study, determined by the issues the pupils themselves identify.

When discussing issues of wellbeing post-lockdown, a good starting point is to unpick an understanding of what wellbeing is. From this knowledge, the pupils will therefore be able to understand and identify:

  1. When someone may be experiencing poor mental health.
  2. Contributing factors to poor mental health.
  3. Positive strategies to improve wellbeing.
  4. When people need help from others.

On returning to school, there could be some negative effects on children when the subject of Covid-19, lockdown and related issues comes up. The issue may be triggering for so many reasons. As such, it is important to establish ground rules ahead of class discussions about sensitive issues – for example not sharing any personal information in wider discussion groups. If anything is shared of concern, it is important that it be followed up on. You cannot promise confidentiality.

Also keep in mind that pupils with SEND are more likely to have wellbeing needs. At St Mary Magdalen’s, the SENCO liaises with class teachers to create appropriate lessons. Assigned mentors for each child oversee the lessons too and build in time to talk through individual issues arising. It is important that all pupils are able to access the lessons.


Introducing mental wellbeing

A good starting point is to teach pupils that, like physical health, mental wellbeing is an important part of daily life and is influenced by different factors, including exercise. If teaching younger pupils, it is important to explain that things in life that they enjoy all support mental wellbeing. Positive relationships, eating and sleeping can support it too. Older pupils can be taught about the influence of others on mental wellbeing and what activities can help them to maintain their own wellbeing.

The Five steps to Mental Wellbeing (NHS, 2020) resource is a useful starting point. The five steps are below with some of my suggested activity ideas.

1, Connect with other people

Good relationships are important for your mental wellbeing. One of the background reasons for the new relationships and health education curriculum becoming mandatory was to try to educate children from an early age about what healthy relationships look like. Children can become controlling at a young age and it is important that children learn to challenge such behaviour.

Schools can develop wider friendship circles for pupils with a range of circle time activities. For example, put children into groups of four, with each named after a fruit for example and seated around a circle. Call out two fruits at a time and the children have to swap places with an alternate fruit.

Once seated again, they find out certain things about their neighbours such as a favourite holiday destination and favourite fruit. Call fruit salad and all of the children switch places and again talk to their new neighbours. It helps to broaden friendship circles while being lots of fun.

2, Be physically active

At St Mary Magdalen’s we recently introduced the daily mile. The aim is to give all children physical exercise for set times in the school day. It helps to engage the least active children who can complete the challenge at their own pace.

3, Learn new skills

Schools promote this aspect of mental wellbeing in spades. Each year at St Mary Magdalen’s we have “a year of…” – such as our recent year of “flying high” (before we knew that all flights would be grounded!). The children learned to identify at least nine common birds and their classes were named after birds. In Reception’s outdoor classroom a hide was set up for birdwatching.

Meanwhile, the broader curriculum can offer life skills such as cooking and yoga (however, it may be a while until extra-curricular clubs are back).

4, Give to others

Children really enjoy this aspect of school life. Charity work and raising environmental awareness are just two examples. The Eco Committee at St Mary Magdalen’s wrote a School Waste Policy and spearheaded an art installation created from disused single-use plastic. It helped to raise awareness of how to contribute to wider school life and further develop a community. Now could be the time to prioritise this work.

5, Pay attention to the present

Teachers have become highly skilled at introducing mindfulness into daily class routines. Learning to be happier and calmer is a big part of the growth mindset principles adopted by many schools.

Staff may also need some mental health first aid themselves in the autumn term. Senior leaders offering time to talk through worries and concerns is a good starting point.

Furthermore, schools may still be running working practices that demand flexibility and this might put work/life balance at risk. It is important to keep the staff team mentally as well as physically well.


  • Helen Frostick is a National Leader of Education, educational consultant, inspector, public speaker and author. She recently retired from her role as headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London. Email h.frostick@st-marymagdalens.richmond.sch.uk. To read her previous articles for Headteacher Update, visit http://bit.ly/2ILS0Od


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