Counselling by Nicola Stewart

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Being a mental health specialist and trainer is a varied and rewarding role.  Read my thoughts on current press, pace and progress regarding children's mental health and the support services available to families.

"Think of the children" - pastoral considerations for the return to school

By Nicky Stewart, May 19 2020 07:13AM

After the enforced long extended break from school due to the COVID 19 pandemic we will need to spend time managing the rupture to our school relationships. This disruption in relationships can be damaging for some and this is based around the theory of attachment. 'Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space'. (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969).




Attachment theory explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development. All children need secure attachment to at least one care giver to make sure they develop emotionally and socially. If a child doesn't have the security of a positive attachment to help them learn how to manage emotional and social situations, they may develop insecure attachments. Doing so can impact on their cognitive development - the way they learn and how they come to understand the world.



For adults with a secure attachment style the pandemic lockdown period will be manageable as they are able to access their own strategies for emotional regulation and will have managed their feelings using useful coping strategies. But those adults or children who have experienced trauma, insecure or ruptured attachments in their own lives, will have found this experience challenging. Adults can display the behaviour here:


The classroom can be a frightening place for children with insecure attachment in normal circumstances but add in the extended period of absence from school for the lockdown period and we will have a real sense of fear and insecurity for many children. So as we plan our return to school provision it is essential we all have a good understanding of attachment theory that will enable us as adults to better support the children in our care and develop the structures and support they need to begin to build trusting relationships over time.


Here are some considerations for school staff as we plan our return:


1. Build relationships


Transitional objects - In human childhood development, a transitional object is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place when an attachment is broken. Common examples include small items, pebbles, hearts, teddy bears or small piece of material. Think about how a pupil may like to have a transitional object available in the journey from home to school.


Staff wellbeing – spend time reconnecting – facilitate an inset session that is focused on reconnection and healing – just having a space to speak and listen only.


Bringing back furlough staff – managing their sense of rejection and the associated feelings. Acknowledge any feelings of loneliness or isolation and the impact of this.


Think about parental engagement and trust building for them to feel confident that school can keep their children safe. Survey parents about their own individual circumstances whilst acknowledging and validating feelings around this - we may have been in the same storm, so to speak, but we haven't all been in the same boat during this pandemic.



Prepare for year group transitions – acknowledge unplanned endings and work on a group that supports these transitions. Use of the Transition Toolbox (Rae, 2019) is designed to support children during this process, helping to build the confidence, skills and the resources they will need to ensure a smooth and successful transition. It also provides teachers, parents and professionals working with young people with a comprehensive range of resources to develop the systems and protocols that also effectively support this process.



2. Create a ‘nurture’ environment


Creating opportunities for those still absent from school to be ‘held in mind’ and sense a connection. Trauma Informed Schools UK have produced a list of ideas here


Think about the physical environment of the school and if your pupils may need additional support, think about how this will impact on a long school day following a period of being at home. Create ‘sensory corners’ where children can self-soothe using items/objects they bring in from home or even their own ‘Box of Calm’ clearly labelled with their name and following the guidelines from PHE


Promoting strength-based activities. For example, if a child likes Art, perhaps begin to look at starting with an art lesson as a way of transitioning.


Bring ways to play and be playful into the school day no matter what age. Research has demonstrated the way in which play can be healing and enable difficult experiences to be expressed through the metaphor of play.


The behaviour policy is reviewed with a focus on positive expression and sanctions are not used to address behaviour - all behaviour can be seen as a communication and the question asked, “What has happened to you?”, not “What is wrong with this?” Using Dan Hughes PACE approach can help with this.


Playful – create an environment where children and adults can be playful.

Acceptance - acceptance of the individual child while providing him/her with the comforting and containment needed to explore their own feelings.

Curiosity – Reflect on their world, use conversation openers such as, “I wonder…”

Empathy – using a sense of unconditional positive regard for the child.


Image courtesy of Emma Sutton


Reinforce the classroom as a secure base. We will not be moving around the school as we did before lockdown – prepare children for this experience. We can prepare a ‘social story’ to support this new way of being when children return. This story provides the children with a ‘rehearsal’ of how school will look when we return.


Prepare a visual timetable displayed within the classroom, no matter what the age of the class. Children thrive on predictability and routine.


Create way in which children can express their feelings safely. Highlight the use of a class worry box to post their worries, indicating whether they would like to talk to a safe adult about these or just leave them there as a form of expression. Highlight access to a 'trusted adult' in school, whether that be a teacher, school counsellor, mental health first aider.


3. Set up supports for emotional expression for staff and pupils


Staff peer Support Circles – Supervision groups for a space to share and reflect. Having regulated adults available in school in turn allows us to support emotional regulation for our pupils.


Break-out nurture room – a space for children to use to enable them to support their own emotional regulation. This can contain soft furnishing, sensory toys/object, gentle music or soft lighting to use the senses to soothe and regulate children.


PSHE lessons focused around emotional expression. Bounce Foward say we have an opportunity post COVID-19, to allow our children to grow from the experience and be remembered as the generation who grew from the pandemic, richer, stronger, nicer human beings. Research strongly shows that teaching healthy minds in schools makes a difference in general health and life satisfaction in children, and school plays a huge part in how happy we are as adults.


Wellbeing strategies placed at the core of all lessons – links to emotional expression through cross-curriculum work.


Safeguarding considerations and pastoral meetings for staff to share concerns with pupil wellbeing.


Support parents in positive parenting through a Positive Psychology lens following the new theory of Wellbeing (Seligman 2011)


4. Staff CPD


For cost effective CPD I highly recommend The Wellbeing Toolkit for Mental Health Leads in Schools which is a Comprehensive Training Resource to Support Emotional Wellbeing in Education & Social Care written by Dr Tina Rae, Dr Amy Such & Dr Jo Wood


Currently priced at £124.99 this is a really accessible training package for schools. It contains 20 practical and accessible modules in The Wellbeing Toolkit for Mental Health Leads provide all of necessary resources to enable you to maintain and enhance the well-being of the children and young people that you nurture and support, while also developing staff confidence and whole-school approaches which will support the wellbeing of the whole school community.


As a priority I would recommend that schools deliver the following modules in relation to the return to school plan:

Trauma & ACEs training – deliver Module 4 from The Wellbeing Toolkit (Rae, Such, Wood 2020) – ‘Understanding Trauma & Adverse Childhood Experiences’


Bereavement and loss training – deliver Module 6 from The Wellbeing Toolkit (Rae, Such, Wood 2020) – ‘Understanding & Supporting Children & Young People through Grief & Loss’


Attachment Theory awareness training – deliver Module 3 from The Wellbeing Toolkit (Rae, Such, Wood 2020) – ‘Understanding Attachment Disorders & Creating an Attachment-Friendly Classroom’


5. Have a memorial


Research by the University of Cambridge explored the relevance of memorials on how we choose to remember the past and what influence memorialisation can have on the way a society moves forward from trauma and loss.


"What these two brief stories of memorialisation show is that memorials are far more complicated than any granite monument might suggest. They are processes involving a constellation of meanings, symbols, emotions, memories and narratives. Memorials are not inherently about reconciliation but they can come to be used to communicate reconciliatory messages."


Create a time capsule – invite every child and member of staff to submit a small item/picture photograph that reminds them of their lockdown experience and then enter these into the capsule to be buried on site to be stored for 100 years.


Create a piece of art to be displayed in school. Each member of the school community paints a piece of a puzzle or an object that represents something significant to the school (for example a phoenix, dragon etc) something symbolic that has resonance to the school community.


Have an assembly where each year group contribute to tell the ‘lockdown’ story and celebrate the story telling together.



Coming together again after a period of physical disconnection will have to be managed effectively to ensure we repair the ruptured connection within schools. This will include acknowledging many losses, loss of life due to COVID19, loss of school connections and loss of routines. The World Health Organisation have a framework to access planned activities during the post-pandemic period, to address the long-term health and social impact of the pandemic, as well as to restore normal health and social functions.


But schools will be creating their own frameworks now, as we know in crisis manangement terms that this has never been experienced before during our lifetime. Hopefully the work that goes into school return and the considerations school leaders will have to make will create a framework for change and nurture in our settings for the future. After trauma comes hope; hope for recovery, learning and growth. There always has to be hope.



1 comments
May 19 2020 04:25PM by tina rae

This is just excellent and so timely and well informed. You are wonderful. Thanks so much! I am going to share across my networks.
Dr Tina Rae

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