Vulnerable students: Planning for transition back to school

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
Thanks for this superb Article, Anthony.

Posted by: ,

As increasing numbers of students return to school, Daniel Sobel outlines a framework he says all schools can use to ensure the right support is in place to ensure a successful transition for vulnerable students

This article is intended to help your school’s planning for ongoing back to school transition for students. The following tips have been suggested by the Inclusion Expert team, headed up by Jill O’Connell, and available to download with this article is a one-page pdf outlining some of the key questions and steps discussed below (click download button below).

Transition: From what to where?

The challenge before us is as follows: how can we support all children to transition from lockdown back to socialising with others again? How can we give them emotional and psychological stability and predictability, and then support them in their learning? It might go something like this:

Step 1: Emotional response

Annie Thompson, headteacher at Marlborough School St Albans, told me she had bought two big yurts. “Mongolian yurts? The big tents?” I enquired to make sure I had heard right. “Yes, they’re for everyone to use when they come back to school.”

She and her staff decided to prioritise the “relearning” of social encounters for a couple of weeks and were inviting students and staff back to school but not into the classrooms.

Instead, they played games, socialised, rediscovered what it is like to be with others again. Only then, will they be invited back into the classrooms for more formalised learning.

Learning will not and cannot restart in school until everyone is having their emotional needs met. Let’s think of it as “emotional scaffolding”. The school community must feel that needs are acknowledged, understood and met.

How? By all staff demonstrating an understanding of the impact of trauma on children and adults alike. By remembering that everyone went through this and each will have had a different experience.

By understanding the wellbeing and safeguarding needs of every individual. By meeting the needs of children who may never have been on your “concerned about” radar before (e.g. those who experienced loss of a family member, those who have been parted from key-worker parents, those who have had a really good experience of home learning and don’t want to come back, those who feel that school has broken a trust and put them into uncertain domestic situations).

Ultimately, we will do this by recognising that we have all had disruption to our routines, structures and friendships and that there will be an impact we feel from that.

Everyone needs to feel safe, valued and nurtured before they can work efficiently and before children will be in a place to learn effectively.

And just to clarify the “how” a bit further – talk, acknowledge, be open, prioritise and don’t, whatever you do, just rush back to normal (however much we desire it).

Every school is different and you need to do this in your own style – so make it a priority for discussion in the various school teams.

Step 2: Regroup and plan

We know that there will be some staff and families who continue to experience financial hardship because of the pandemic. Do we need to relax any existing policies and remove any possible stigma associated with financial hardship (including uniform for children and dress code for staff)? This is about making sure the rest of the steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are sorted out first – see the tables below.

Step 3: Re-establish

School is currently a different place for everyone. It is lacking the hustle and bustle. It no longer looks or feels the same. There may be staff missing. There are students missing. This will be a huge period of rebuilding. Staff and students alike will need to rebuild relationships.

Behaviours will be different. Expect low self-esteem, frustration, anger and aggression and be prepared to support the reasons behind these challenges. Older students may well want to reset boundaries – how will you manage this?

The key to this phase is go slow. No. Go slower than that. Assume a minimum of one year until we return to normal. Take your foot off the curriculum accelerator pedal, go slow enough for everyone to feel like they are fully back.

The most vulnerable students

The first and most important issue is that of the risk assessment for vulnerable students, including those with SEND. We have a “duty of care” to adults and children. The government’s basic advice is around handwashing and hygiene, but what if you are not always able to do this? Most schools have children who have physical or neurological issues that impair their ability to be distanced socially and hygienically.

It is an awful position for a school leader to be in, but it ultimately boils down to if the child is safer at home, why should they be in school?

Another factor is that parents may not want to send in a child without their year group cohort, especially if they struggle socially. A determining issue will be whether the vulnerable child is placed in a year group or a “vulnerable-child bubble”.

Looked after children are also considered “vulnerable”, but this categorisation may not be appropriate for those in secure placements and this needs to be thought about on a case-by-case basis.

No-one has mentioned attendance for months now. Fair enough. But, you know it is coming. What of those children who struggled to come to school consistently before all of this happened?

Transition-planning for vulnerable students

Below is an example of transition-planning for a vulnerable student. This has been thought-through by Sara Alston, an experienced SENCO, and myself. We hope this gives you a useful template for your vulnerable students.

The following assessment is an edited version taken from a real case and considers five aspects: emotional and mental health, physical, learning, home situation, and social. We begin with a risk assessment.

Risk assessment: Safe to return?

Identified Issue



  • Risk of infection to child from others
  • Need for intimate care (meaning social distancing is difficult)
  • Confirmation from the consultant that they are happy with a return to school
  • Risk to others
  • Need for intimate care (meaning social distancing is difficult)
  • When toileting there is a need for face masks
  • Issues with wheelchair. Child can drive into things/people
  • Use of PPE. Adults will require gloves and aprons in class. Additional face masks and eye covering or face shields when transitioning (he may spit, cough, sneeze, etc)
  • Reduce class size to eight children to increase space around child
  • Physio and occupational therapist needs
  • Not able to provide normal support (insufficient adults within school)
  • Issues with storage of equipment
  • Subsequent impact on child’s health and wellbeing
  • Transitions to ensure safety
  • Increase occupational therapist and physio activities at home
  • Further advice from multi-agency colleagues
  • Toileting
  • Reduced staff means that toilet visits will be at fixed times (due to adult availability). Child’s understanding and ability to follow this timetable is a concern.
  • Increased risk of toileting accidents (impact on health and wellbeing)
  • If there is any kind of toileting incident, parents will need to come and support the child and he will need to go home.
  • If there is an accident, the wheelchair will need cleaning
  • Handwashing
  • Effective handwashing is a target for the occupational therapist. Increased infection risk.
  • Use of hand sanitiser; support for handwashing; increased space around child
  • Lunch (packed lunch only). An adult normally helps with eating, focus to eat, and wipes their mouth
  • Child needs to manage this independently (will not be able to unwrap or cut-up food)
  • Spreads food as they eat – risk to others
  • Child will need to manage this themselves. PPE for adults. Child to remain in own space
  • Monitoring of surfaces that child has touched for cleaning. Table covering to be thrown away after lunch
  • No parking spaces will be available. Child will need to bring themselves in to school
  • Risk of spreading infection via wheelchair
  • Cleaning of chair before entering school, after meals, at end of school. Use of masks and gloves to move chair

Emotional and mental health

  • Social interaction reduced
  • Need for increased space around child to protect him and others.
  • Impact on self-esteem. Increased isolation.


  • Access to academic support and learning
  • No-one will be able to sit beside the child and he will need to manage his learning independently. Without prompts, ICT support, support with apparatus and so on the child will struggle to access learning.
  • Child is not motivated to access learning without prompting (see annual review).
  • Curriculum may not be appropriate (no interventions, we are not able to hear him read)
  • Impact on child’s self-esteem. Further demotivated from accessing learning. Support from a distance may feel like he is being told off.
  • Some personalised resources (sterilised as part of weekly deep clean)
  • Use of laptop.
  • Limited skills to do this independently
  • Impact on learning support
  • Need to reduce the number of adults touching laptop (infection risk)
  • Adults not able to prepare word banks for use with clicker or support with other programmes or finding work
  • Daily cleaning of laptop.
  • Laptop will need to be left open as child cannot open it.


  • Access to academic support and learning
  • Use of laptop
  • Limited skills to do this independently

Home situation

  • Difficulties providing support
  • Increased anxiety; more prone to meltdown

  • Will the child be able to access learning? Will increased anxiety inhibit ability to access learning?
  • Will the child be able to access learning? Will increased anxiety inhibit ability to access learning?


  • Social interaction reduced
  • Need for increased space around child to protect him and others. Impact on self-esteem. Increased isolation

  • Issues dealing with change (coming back to a school that is not the same; not able to follow changed routine)
  • Increased anxiety leading to meltdown.
  • Short term changes – transition to school holidays and then into different year group
  • Preparation (social stories etc).
  • Very difficult as dealing with larger number of unknowns. Will need to be delivered by parents due to demands on staff time.
  • Managing meltdowns
  • Risk to staff and other children. Risk of spitting and biting; child runs off and so cannot be left; risk child will hurt themselves.
  • Not enough staff to support. What happens to the rest of the group if member of staff leaves to support child?
  • PPE adds to the child’s anxiety
  • PPE (but how should it be used and when do you put it on?).
  • Calming materials are high risk
  • Government recommendation is to remove soft furnishing and toys
  • Selection kept for child’s personal use. Washed regularly?
  • Reduced staff so lack of normal support (children in groups with unfamiliar staff and rooms, and different children – all adding to anxiety)
  • Increased anxiety; more prone to meltdown
  • Ensure as much of their normal support as possible is in place
  • Consider group with reduced ratios (issues of staff and space may not make this possible)
  • Maintain groups of less than 15

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert, which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via

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


Thanks for this superb Article, Anthony.
Posted By: ,

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.