Covid-19 recovery: Time to start listening to our pupils

Written by: Jenny Mosley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What does ‘recovery’ mean? Post-lockdown and as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, we are all talking about pupil wellbeing – but are we listening to the children? Jenny Mosley urges a renewed focus on circle time and other ways of supporting pupil (and staff) wellbeing


This unparalleled time of crisis has given me a lot of time to think and I keep stumbling over the word “recovery”. My metaphorical tongue keeps poking it like a wobbly tooth.

I have come to the conclusion: I think we all need a much wider sense of the word “recovery”.

During the last few months of the coronavirus pandemic, I have been contacted by headteachers and teachers wanting ideas for helping both children and staff settle back into school life. I have read Professor Barry Carpenter and Matthew Carpenter’s inspiring “Recovery Curriculum” and see they are facilitating inspiring and excellent discussions. I love the empathic, wise, sensible way they write about the needs of children in response to all the loss they have experienced during the pandemic (Carpenter & Carpenter, 2020).

I have been in education for 48 years and I have been in schools most days. More than 12 years ago, the Labour government was promoting the social and emotional intelligence of children. Children’s ability to understand and manage their emotions, was high on school agendas.

The SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) curriculum was going strong; a fabulous, beautifully thought-through resource, created by an experienced team of educators under the direction of the wonderful Jean Gross (see www.sealcommunity.org). This team was deeply committed to giving all children the best chance in life and I was very happy to be asked to contribute my circle time guidance for schools.

At that time, in many of the schools I visited there would be three weekly sessions – SEAL, PSHE and circle time. It was genuine engagement with what children needed emotionally to understand the world.

Most schools understood that circle time is a discrete entity in and of itself. Yes, it can be a great forum for delivering other bodies of knowledge and facilitating discussion – but it also needs to be practised in its own right, weekly.

Although it needs to be planned, it does not need to have any agenda other than that which individuals bring to the session. It can focus entirely on what those individuals need to understand, what is happening now, on this day, in this time – relationships in the playground, why a pupil gets so angry and what they can do about it, what is currently happening around them and how can they deal with it; i.e. the “now” of the human condition.

During these last 12 years, in many schools that I have trained in, few of these above options have been available to children on a weekly basis. Additionally, teacher training has lessened its commitment to these areas. So today I meet very few young teachers who have any depth of training in active group work and/or listening.

But this is what we need now. I do not want us to think of the word “recovery” as applying to the last poorly funded, meanly conceived, target-driven, no-time for-listening to children decade. I want us to recover our common sense. We cannot prioritise “wellbeing” and “empathy” unless we timetable it. Children lost their voice a long time ago – well before the pandemic. We need to recover the concept of a listening school.

I know that circle time is needed more than ever, even if, physically, we have a big space between each of us and the number of children in the circle is small. What we would have is dear, sweet faces all able to look at each other. We are no longer isolated, just distanced. We need to see into people’s eyes, hear their words, enjoy being silly or being sensible. We will be back in a circle, all at the same level (the teacher is not on her own comfortable chair with children at his or her feet, he or she is at the same level because everyone is part of a team).

In my experience, teachers and children love circle times. Children love hearing what their peers think. They love the “balanced diet” of circle time with good listening, some fun games, talking about things that matter and a mindful, peaceful time at the end.

The very best schools hold weekly circle times for staff too because only if the mental health of staff is looked after will they have the energy and resilience to listen and support others.

I have been in touch with Prof Carpenter who agrees: “We do need to reignite some of the approaches we have lost – and urgently,” he says.

As a contribution towards school recovery and developing a greater capacity for listening and a greater capacity for empathy and respect for each other, I have pulled together an online staff training package – From Lockdown to Listening and Learning.

The aim of this is to explore how we can contribute to the wellbeing of both the adults and children in school and take a therapeutic approach to rebuilding the safe, respectful communities that our children and staff deserve. There are specially created resources to help teachers return to circle time and class discussions. In the meantime, here follows some tips...


Make sure you really are a listening school

At a time when many children are feeling fragile and troubled, my top tip is that you have three listening systems in place.

Circle time: Circle time can allow children to see each other’s faces and communicate, play games and start to rebuild the classroom community. You will need to run through your ground rules. The key rules are that nobody can be named negatively (they can say, “Someone didn’t let me play…”). It is also important to remind the children that if they say anything that worries you, you will have to take it further and tell someone else, but that you will let them know if you need to do this. And remind pupils that if they have anything that is troubling them personally they should take it to Bubble Time.

Bubble time: This is special one-to-one listening time in the classroom. It can be set up by constructing a round cardboard or thin wooden circle – made to look golden – with “Bubble Time” written on it. The meaning is that you and the child are in a bubble and other children must not interrupt (otherwise they burst the bubble). If it is on a stand it can be moved to any quiet place in the classroom where you can sit peacefully with a sand timer for just a few minutes.

If a child needs Bubble Time it needs to be flagged up by the teacher offering it – if they hear something from the child or see behaviour that concerns them, for example. Alternatively, the child can request Bubble Time and classes can create systems using named pegs or sticky notes. Be careful as pupils can start to invent problems (as they love sharing time with you). To prevent this, ensure that Bubble Time can also be used for celebrating achievement or sharing joyful news with their teacher.

Think books: These take the form of a journal that encourages children to think about feelings, both happy and sad, concerns and celebrations. Each child will need a book that is kept private and there needs to be an agreed place where Think Books can be placed for the teacher to read at a time which is convenient to them, and where they will remain for the teacher’s eyes only (perhaps the teacher’s cupboard).

This can be very open-ended, particularly for older pupils, who can use Think Books to express their sense of achievement or reflection on things as well as their concerns. If this is too onerous, try a Class Think Box, where pupils can leave anonymous notes for you with any issues they want looked at that.


Plan circle time

Circle time cannot be left to chance and needs to be timetabled into the school week so that children know there is a time when they will have their voice heard and that any classroom issues can be discussed in a safe and helpful way.

Once timetabled, when planning the session ensure that children can play a game, have speaking rounds and other activities, and then always end the session on a positive note. At this time of Covid-19, it is useful to plan in activities or discussions based on the key elements of social and emotional learning. Additionally, while it is great to have a plan, an open forum time where children can ask for help with school-based issues will also prove useful.


Look after yourself and your staff team

Children are not the only ones who might be feeling vulnerable or emotional. In the best schools, there are therapeutic staff circle times. Each teacher will have their own personal care plan to keep their own health and wellbeing on track. Your school may have staff buddies or mentors or other types of support in place.

Only by looking after your own energy levels will you be able to emotionally “read” the children within your care. Children may be masking how they are feeling or emotionally acting out their feelings – and it all takes a lot of adult energy to manage this.


And finally

I have spoken to many pro-circle time heads who know the safety guidance for coronavirus inside out. They say the social bubble is the protective factor in classrooms and there is no reason why you cannot do circle time. We have included the five points below in our online training package and these are additional safety measures that can be considered:

  • Not passing round objects.
  • The staff thinking through their ability to socially distance from (or at least minimise close proximity with) any one child for an extended period.
  • Doing it in a well-ventilated space.
  • Giving slightly more space between chairs.
  • Not doing games or activities where children are in closer proximity and breathing on or touching each other unnecessarily.

These points have come from Ian Read, the headteacher at Watercliffe Meadow School in Sheffield. He said: “The benefits to children’s wellbeing far outweighs the minimal difference in risk between forward facing and sitting in a circle. I go back to the fact that the protective factor is the bubble.”


  • Jenny Mosley is the author of a number of practical books for primary schools and she holds regular open training days throughout the UK. Visit www.circle-time.co.uk


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