Full school re-opening: Supporting SEND pupils

Written by: Stephanie Glenister | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As schools re-open to all students, those with SEND may well need more support. Stephanie Glenister outlines how we can help pupils – both those who have been attending school during lockdown and those who have been at home – to transition back into ‘normal’ school life

Help your pupils re-adapt to learning in a larger environment

Reassure pupils who have been attending school in person: Some of your pupils with SEND have likely been coming into school during the national lockdown because of their status as vulnerable children. These pupils may now struggle with a sudden increase in their class size and changes in routine as your school opens up to all children. Reassure your pupils and talk to them about what is happening so they feel prepared for having more of their peers in school with them (for tips, see the section below “speak to pupils about what's going on”).

Support pupils who've been learning from home: Equally, pupils who have been learning from home during lockdown will also need support to re-adapt to changes to routines and being around more people.

Make your resources and routines accessible for all pupils

Changing routines: You will no doubt have plans in place for things like drop-off and collection, break and lunchtime, how and where pupils should wash their hands and how pupils should line up throughout the day. If these routines are different from what pupils are used to, make them clear and easy to understand to help pupils settle in.

Make it visual: It is a good idea to create posters for these routines, so pupils can get to grips with them. Visual aids are particularly helpful for some pupils with SEND because they make the information permanently accessible. Give pupils plenty of time to process the information and do not involve social interactions. When you make these, create accessible alternatives for pupils who need them. For example, for pupils with autism you could create picture-heavy versions of timetables and expectations – you can see more about visual supports here.

ALSO FROM HEADTEACHER UPDATE: The return to school after lockdown 3.0 could be challenging for students with autism. Drawing on experiences and lessons learned from the first national lockdown, Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises on how we can best support them.

Use social stories: Social stories show pupils what to expect and why in different social situations. See the resources from South Glos Parents and Carers, including social stories that explain to pupils with SEND that their school is re-opening. Here are some tips for creating social stories:

  • Start by picturing the social interaction you want pupils to be able to understand.
  • Choose the most appropriate words and pictures that will help them get there.
  • Use words such as "sometimes" and "usually" so that if things do not go as planned, you will not lose pupils' trust.
  • Create stories for all of the possible outcomes (e.g. your school having to close and re-open again) so that pupils are prepared for different situations.
  • Tailor them to individual pupils' interests and abilities – for example, by using characters that you know a pupil likes.
  • Give them to pupils at a time when they will be able to refer back to them – for example, at the beginning of the day to explain what will happen at
  • lunchtimes.
Use the “now and next” approach to make timetables manageable: If

you think some pupils might feel overwhelmed by a strict timetable when

they return, break their day into what they are doing now, and what

they are doing directly afterwards. For example, say: "Now we're doing

some creative writing, and next we'll be washing our hands before

lunch.” Make “now and next” visual as well (for example, by writing it

on the whiteboard at the start of each lesson).

Changing habits:
Be mindful that while at home pupils will have become used to having more time to do what they wanted, so it could be helpful to be clear on when they can expect to have time to do what they want back at school. Similarly, any timetable changes may make pupils who have been in school during lockdown feel unsettled, so using this approach will help reassure them too.

Speak to pupils about what's going on

Give clear reminders: To help pupils with SEND get to grips with routines, you and your team should talk to them and remind them about why they will have to wash their hands more often and sit further apart, why adults (and secondary-age pupils) may need to wear face masks, why there will be more pupils in school again, and why coronavirus testing will be carried out.

Be flexible when reintroducing the rules: Involve pupils in decisions made about them, but be clear on what is negotiable and what is not. Make compromises (where it is safe to do so) that are appropriate for individual pupils about what they can and cannot do now they are back in school, or in larger class sizes.

Show them that their feelings are normal: Ask pupils how they are feeling and why. This will help you address specific concerns and make the transition as easy as possible. Make your questions open and generic rather than asking about specific things you think they might be worried about. This will avoid accidentally creating any further anxieties. Reassure them that it is okay for them to not always feel okay, and that they can talk to you about this. Be an honest and open role model about your own feelings and how you are managing them. You could say things like:

  • “My tummy was feeling a little bit funny on my way in this morning – did anyone else's tummy feel like that? I felt better after I thought about seeing my friends."
  • "It's a bit noisier in this classroom than at home, isn't it? What noises can we hear that we couldn't hear at home?"
  • "Wow, I haven't had to stand in front of a full class for a long time! How are you guys feeling about sitting in a classroom after all that time at home?"
  • "School feels a lot busier now, doesn't it? Who else is excited about having their friends return to school?
Set pupils up with a peer mentor

Consider asking pupils to be learning buddies with pupils with SEND when they first return. These mentors can prompt and support their buddy with activities, like reading or moving on from one task to another.

Celebrate work completed in lockdown to build pupils' confidence

It is important to recognise the work that your pupils have done during the lockdown – whether in school or at home. Make sure that teachers champion work that pupils have completed, to give them some positive reinforcement.

If your pupils with SEND have specific hobbies or interests, consider asking about these during conversations too. Bear in mind that some pupils will not have had as much stimulation at home as others – try not to leave them out.

Of course, you know your pupils best, so pick the approaches that work best for their needs.

  • Stephanie Glenister is a content editor at The Key, a provider of intelligence and resources for school leaders. The advice in this article is taken from The Key’s resource School reopening: Supporting pupils with SEND to transition back to school”– which has been created with Barry Carpenter, Kate Buckingham, Ian Hunkin and Fritz Penn-Barwell. Visit https://thekeysupport.com/

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.