Returning to School using Psychology to Support Pupils

In September schools will return to a new academic year, with the previous one having being affected by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the situation is unprecedented, restoring social and behavioural functioning after disasters has been extensively explored over the last few decades with an emphasis on post disaster psycho-social disaster (Hobfoll et al., 2007).

In such situations many people will have transient stress reactions. This is a normal reaction, however for some individuals the level, or cumulative effect of the stress, may become unmanageable whereby they need assistance in order to help them develop and employ effective coping strategies.

In 2007 Dr Stevan Hobfoll worked with a worldwide panel on the study and treatment of those exposed to disasters to extrapolate key principles. The group identified five empirically supported intervention principles that can be used to inform intervention and prevention efforts at the early to mid-term stages.

These are promoting:

  • A sense of safety
  • Calming
  • Sense of self and community efficacy
  • Connectedness
  • Hope

These will be explored in more detail below and provide a framework within which schools can work within the early to mid-stages upon their return.


Promote a Sense of Safety

When a mass disaster occurs (i.e. one where a large number of the population are affected) individuals are forced to respond to events that impact upon their lives, the lives of those close to them or their core values. As such negative, post-trauma reactions are common in large percentages of the population, across all age ranges. When safety is introduced however, these reactions show a gradual reduction over time.

More importantly, even where threat continues for those that can re-establish or maintain a sense of relative safety there are less likely to be ongoing emotional wellbeing issues.

How can this be achieved?       

  • Create a sense of physical safety within the school environment whereby individuals are aware, and understand the reasons for, safety procedures. This would include, for example, explaining to students why they need to wash their hands/hand sanitise and the benefits of doing so.
  • Limit the amount of time talking about the trauma if doing so makes the individual more anxious or upset.
  • Safety includes safety from rumours and other factors that may increase threat perception. As such, leadership must provide an accurate, organised voice to help limit threat and thereby increase the perception of safety where there is no serious threat.
  • Limit exposure to news media overall and avoid news media that contains graphic films or photographs if an individual is experiencing increased distress. This includes educating parents and carers regarding limiting and monitoring news (and other media) exposure to children.


Promote Calming

Exposure to mass trauma often results in increases in emotionality at the initial stages. This is perfectly normal response and most individuals will return to manageable levels of emotionality over time.

For some however they can experience hyperarousal, which can have a major impact upon risk perception, this means people might think something is dangerous or harmful, even if there is very limited evidence to suggest that is true.  

How Can this be Achieved?

  • Mindfulness activities such as breathing deeply to stop hyperventilation and physical activities such as yoga can do this.
  • Normalise stress reactions, by explaining the reactions are normal to an abnormal situation.
  • Engage in activities that promote positive emotions such as joy, humour and contentment.
  • Facilitate problem solving thinking whereby an individual is supported to break a big issue into small manageable units. This in turn increases a sense of control and creates small manageable wins and decreases the problem the individual is facing.


Promote Sense of Self-efficacy and Collective Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the sense that individual’s belief that their actions are likely to lead to generally positive outcomes (Bandura, 1997) mainly through self-regulation of thought, emotions and behaviour.

This can be extended to collective efficacy, which is the sense that one belongs to a group that is likely to experience positive outcomes. Following such as situation as the Covid-19 pandemic, people are at risk of losing their sense of competency to handle events they must face. This starts with events related to the pandemic, but then can become generalised to a fundamental sense of ‘can’t do’.

As such the sense that one can cope with trauma related events has been found to be beneficial (Hobfoll et al., 2007). With ‘trauma-related self-efficacy’ being how well (or the extent to which) the students perceive they can manage upsetting or worrying emotions  and problems linked with relationships and the re-establishment of school processes and routines.

 How can this be achieved?

  • Teach students emotional regulation strategies and skills, when faced by trauma reminders, including explaining to them how thoughts, feelings and behaviours interlink.
  • Enhance problem solving skills. Rather than staff telling a pupil what they can do, encourage them individually, or as a group, to come up with ideas about strategies that might be tried. Revisit the suggestions at a later date to review them in order to discuss what worked.
  • Renew learning opportunities and activities that promote students feeling that they have the skills to overcome issues and solve their problems.
  • School initiated activities whereby students have the opportunity to have concerns and worries discussed alongside the modelling of how to manage these feelings and coping strategies.


Promote Connectedness

Connecting with others is of fundamental importance to children and adolescents and facilitating their reconnection with key figures is a primary goal in recovery interventions. Social connectedness increases opportunities for the transfer of essential knowledge and provides opportunities for a range of social support opportunities including; practical problem solving, emotional understanding, normalisation of reactions and the sharing of coping strategies (Hobfoll et al., 2007).

As such identifying those students who lack strong social support, and are likely to be more socially isolated, is a valuable process.

How can this be achieved?

  • Senior management gathering information from staff in order to identify students they perceive to be ‘at risk’ and then assigning staff to mentor or support them during the Autumn term.
  • Create opportunities for pupils to reconnect with staff members, through pastoral sessions and class discussions/activities.
  • Circles of help activity, ask your students to draw pictures of the people they would turn to if they needed help. Who are the friends, family, teachers or other people they could go to for support? (Partnership for Children, 2020).


Promote Hope

Research suggests that those who remain optimistic are more are likely to have more favourable outcomes after experiencing a traumatic event, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, because they can retain a reasonable degree of hope for their future.

Instilling hope is really important because a mass trauma can frequently result in ‘catastrophizing’, whereby individuals experiences (such as the cumulative effect of the Covid-19 over time) outstrips individuals learned coping mechanisms and can lead to a sense of hopelessness (Hobfoll et al., 2007).

How can this be achieved?

  • Identify and build on strengths in students and staff and within the school community.
  • Benefit finding activities, which are activities whereby pupils are encouraged to identify ‘positives’ or ‘benefits’, of their lockdown experiences by encouraging them to focus on the positive aspects of lockdown, i.e. spending more quality time with family members.
  • Activities that include forward looking exercises that promote progression to instil hope and renews motivation for learning and future planning.
  • To utilise early Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approaches such as decatastrophizing whereby individuals are asked to think about how likely something is to happen (this is where official data and statistics can be useful), and encouraging them to think about what coping mechanisms they have employed in other difficult situations.


Additional information regarding using psychological perspectives to support the re-engagement and recovery of students can be found here BPS / DECP Guidance on Back to School and resilience and coping framework for supporting transitions back to school.


Furthermore, for additional advice and guidance on how to support students on the return to school please see Recovery, Re-introduction and Renewal: A Handbook for Schools and Educational Settings Following Critical Incidents. This has been written by Nottingham Educational Psychology Service, commissioned by Whole School SEND and NASEN, recognised by the Association of Educational Psychologists and funded by the Department for Education.


It is available via the SEND gateway. You can download this version here  and also via the SEND gateway


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