Strategies to Support Children’s Wellbeing fact sheet

How can school leaders prepare for the full opening of schools post lockdown?

We are all acutely aware of two questions at the moment as we fully reopen our schools to the whole school community in September.

  1. How can we meet the mental health and wellbeing needs of our children, young people and families?
  2. How do we recover the lost learning that may have been a result of the months of lockdown?

As school leaders we know that we cannot even begin to expect to see academic progress until we have created the right conditions for learning. If children are anxious, depressed or suffering from any emotional or mental health concerns these need to be addressed first in order to support the child or young person so they will be ready to learn.


Start with why…. Why do we need to think differently?

  • To acknowledge and accept the changes that have happened since March 2020
  • To begin to observe and assess the changes that have happened and plan a ‘recovery’ curriculum
  • To consider how to notice SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) need
  • To consider how to support the needs of all
Acknowledge and accept change

We need to acknowledge that change has happened and that this will look different for every individual. We cannot assume that we have all had the same experiences during lockdown. Some children would have dealt with bereavement, others the feeling of isolation, some fear, others boredom. Some may have been witness to domestic violence, others to watching as parents lose their jobs and all the associated fears and complications that come with that. Some would have had a great time at home with parents supporting them with their home learning, spending time and building relationships with siblings that are deeper than they ever had before. Some would have benefited from being at home, slowing down, taking time to just be. They may grieve the loss of this lovely situation as they come back to school, especially to a school that looks and runs differently as it fulfils the new government guidelines to help keep the school community safe. As educators we need to acknowledge and accept that change has happened, that it will be profound for some and less for others, that it will have affected the children as well as ourselves and our colleagues. The impact of this change will not always be obvious.

How can we begin to assess the impact of change and move forward?

As educators, we need to spend time noticing the children in our class and building relationships that allow the child to feel safe and empower them to reveal their needs to us so that we can better support them.

Creating a curriculum that allows time for us to step back and observe, much like the early years curriculum, is crucial in the early stages when we return to school in September. Open ended investigations, independent activities and child-led learning opportunities are all key to helping us ascertain the tone of our new class.

Planning for these types of learning opportunities will enable the teachers and teaching assistants to assess not only the mental, social and emotional needs but also the academic. Assessment for learning can be done in this low stakes, supportive environment and can inform planning so that it is targeted, individualised and highly effective.

So what can a ‘recovery curriculum’ look like in our schools? We must begin, in the first instance, by organising learning that does not raise anxiety in our children, but instead reminds the child exactly how much they already know, how much they have remembered. Using this simple technique as a starting point will help to build a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. Once the children have been given the time and space to settle, and once the teacher has a clearer picture of where their children are with their learning, progress can be obtained through planning for teaching and learning that gently builds on and stretches the child’s skills and knowledge. Next steps can be gleaned and shared with the child who is able to work at their own pace, developing new skills and building knowledge.

How can we notice SEMH needs?

We can build a picture of the needs of a child in 2 ways:

  1. Through cognitive processes: thinking, knowing, remembering and problem solving
  2. Through body language and behaviours

In order to give children the opportunity to reflect on the way they are feeling, to think about their emotions and thoughts and to consider the impact of all of this on their behaviours you need to encourage them to slow down and reflect.

We have created a ‘Let’s go S.L.O.W’ approach:

S- Stop

L- Listen

O- Open Up

W- Work together

Stop – Build time into the day to allow for some mindfulness activities. Consider the moment, ask how do we feel now? Consider what has led to you feeling like you are in this moment. Reflect.

Listen – Listen to ourselves, listen to others around us. What can we notice when we look inwards and how does this make us feel? What are the experiences of others around us? Can we relate to their experiences, can we empathise? How does this help us to better understand our own experience?

Practice sitting quietly and focussing on your breath, then your body, where it touches the seat, your feet on the floor. Ask yourself how you feel – hungry? tired? happy? calm?

Open-up – Share our thoughts and feelings with those around us to help us to understand ourselves better. By finding words to express how we feel we can begin to understand better and maybe even the healing process will begin if that is what is needed.

A fun way to get children talking about emotions is Emotions Charades. Just like the game we play at Christmas but with emotion prompts for the children to act out to trigger discussions about emotions in a non-threatening way.

Work together – Working with others, either in a pair or in groups can help us to be stronger, to better understand the changes that have happened and the experiences that we have had, but also to consider ways forward to learn from and build upon them.

Get children to work together and collaborate effectively by giving them fun problem-solving tasks to complete in a group. e.g. give a pile of newspapers and challenge the groups to make the strongest bridge or the tallest tower. Open-ended projects help build relationships, trust and communication skills.

Signs to look for – speaking bodies not talking mouths

It is important to remember that some children will not be able to work through their emotions cognitively. We will need to try to look for signs in their body language and behaviours that may suggest they need support.

Signs to look out for include:

Tight jaw, sickness, tension headache, raised shoulders, no eye contact, excessive eye contact, change of behaviours, overly chatty, overly energetic, lethargy

There are lots of signs to say that children are feeling unsafe, unhappy, anxious. We need to help children to recognise these signs in their bodies, but also use our observation skills to read body language to help us identify when a child may need extra support.

How can we support our children?

Feelings Wheel Feelings Wheel

A great tool for encouraging articulating feelings and giving new words to help unpick how a child is feeling. The centre of the wheel provides the most basic example of how a child may try to describe their feelings. As you move out to each layer new vocabulary is offered to help support a child in unpicking their feelings and reflecting on them more deeply and more accurately.

Emotion Coaching

For more information go to:

Emotion coaching was first introduced by John Gottman and his colleagues in the USA.

Emotion coaching is about helping children to become more aware of their emotions and to manage their own feelings particularly during instances where a child is not able to self-regulate leading to anti-social behaviours.  We need to remember that all behaviour is communication and we need to consider what is being communicated behind the behaviours.

Emotion coaching entails these steps:

Recognising feelings – Talk to the child and begin to name what you can see.

Validating and labelling children’s emotions – the feelings wheel will be helpful here

Setting limits where appropriate and if needed – Share your expectations, make it clear what is appropriate, safe behaviour

Problem-solve with the child – develop more effective behavioural strategies together

Example: A child is crying, but not saying why. She kicks over a chair and leaves the classroom without permission.

Emotion coaching approach: An adult follows the child so they know she is safe, sits with her and gives her time to cry/calm etc.

Next steps: Tell her you can see she is upset. Give an example of when you have felt upset and explain it is something that we all feel at some point. Encourage her to breathe, perhaps use the finger breathing activity (above). Once she is talking use the emotion wheel to discuss her feelings with her and help her to label them. Once she is calm remind her of the expectations with regards to appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Lastly, problem-solve together about what she could do next time she is feeling like this and put something in place together to help her feel safe e.g. choose a safe space to go to;  create a time out card together that she can turn face up when she feels upset.

Protective behaviours

For more information and resources visit Families Feeling Safe.

Children need to know that they have a right to feel safe all of the time. We need to co-regulate to help them to self-regulate. Teach the child behaviours that will help them to self-regulate. It is important to think about what may lead to increasing anxiety in a child. If we can predict it, we can begin to put things in place that may prevent it, or at least give children tools to manage anxiety. Give the child the voice to create a plan together that will support them during difficult times.

  • Ask the child to identify any triggers or triggering feelings.
  • Ask the child to identify a safe adult or safe adults
  • Ask the child to identify a safe place
  • Remind the children they can talk to someone even if it’s awful or seemingly ‘small’
  • Remind the children to stop-feel-think-do once they have ownership of their safety plan

Once we have considered how to support our children in their transition back into school, and make a ‘recovery curriculum’ that incorporates both the academic as well as the mental health and wellbeing needs of our children, we can begin the new academic year more equipped to face the unknown that we may be required to face.

By Alis Rocca (Head Teacher, Education Consultant and founder of Arise Wellbeing)


It is also normal to feel very anxious about the changes. Change makes most people feel a bit strange and worried. Some people find this harder than others though.

Different experiences

It’s important to remember that children have had hugely different experiences during lockdown. Some children who experience anxiety normally, may have found a break from going to school, a break from triggers for their anxiety. For them going back to school is going to be very anxiety provoking. There are other children who have had a great time with families and don’t want to return to school. And then of course there are many children who have been in family situations with lots of arguing, and possibly violence and neglect who will find getting back to school a refuge. Do not assume that you know how children feel.

Modelling calmness

You may be wondering whether to send your child back to school soon. You may have good reasons for wanting to keep your child at home for longer. Either way, just be aware of how you model your own anxiety when speaking to your child about returning to school. Speak to your child when you feel calm yourself.

Listening and validating

Listen to your child. Hear what their concerns are. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that you know it’s tough for them

We don’t have all the answers

It’s ok to not have the answers. In fact, it’s better not to pretend that you know. We don’t know. It’s possible we may move back to school, then to lockdown, and back. This could go on for a while.

Limit news and address misinformation

If they are worried about getting unwell or making someone else unwell, agree to investigate some facts together. For example, you may look together at the facts in the news, but limit the amount viewed and address any misinformation the child has. You may want to look at what happened in previous illnesses in the past and how we got through it as a country.

Limit reassurance

Asking questions is helpful but giving excessive reassurance is not. It’s very tempting to give lots of reassurance to your child, as it may relieve anxiety in the short term. In the long term it keeps it going. Instead listen and ask them what they think, and what they think will help.

Focus on possible strategies

Help children to focus on possible strategies. Ask them how they adapted to the lockdown. What helped? What might help them now adapt to going back to school?

There may be some things that immediately can be done to problem solve the concerns raised. For example, ‘I am worried that my friends won’t want to speak to me at school’. Agree an experiment to try this out before hand, such as try contacting a friend to speak or meet in advance of school starting.

Deferring worries

Children can also be encouraged to make a list of worries and have an agreed deferred time to worry about things on their list. For example, at 4pm spend 30 minutes worrying. This can help to contain worries, and often the worry feels less distressing at this deferred time.

Parents preparing children for the return- routines, reconnecting with friends etc.

Before returning to school, try and prepare children by getting them back into a routine. They will need to go to bed at a reasonable time, wake up early and learn to do the school walk/ cycle/ drive to school again. They could do some practice runs to school in the week or so beforehand. If they are not already doing so, help them to reconnect with friends to make the transition easier. They can meet with one friend in a park or via zoom etc.

More contact before schools re-open for teachers and families

It may be helpful for teachers and families to have more contact before going back to school. Encourage children to share their work with school and teachers may arrange phone calls with families if possible, especially where anxieties are known. Some primary schools have Mental Health Support Teams or counsellors and it may help to run anxiety groups or transition groups for anxious children or their parents before returning to school.

Preparing children for changes

It might be helpful for parents and teachers to prepare children ahead of school starting via school websites and newsletters and that school may feel different. Classes may be smaller, they may have to wash their hands more, they may have less close contact with friends at school and stick to small groups of friends. All of this is to help keep them safe.

After returning to school make new routines fun where possible

In school, be clear about the new routines so that children have some sense of control. Help to make routines fun for example singing songs to washing hands.

Listening to each other

Teachers should listen to children and not assume how they feel or what they have gone through. Help children to listen to each other too so they can process the huge changes. It is important to not ignore the changes that have occurred.

As above limit reassurance, encourage a growth mindset.

Help children to recognise that building tolerance of uncertainty can help them manage their anxiety and develop their growth mindset. It is like building up ‘mind muscles’. Limit reassurance as this can maintain anxiety. Instead encourage children to ask questions, and support skills in problem solving so they can consider their own solutions.

Worry box and time

Have a worry box as a class and post worries in this through the day. Have a specified time as a class or in smaller groups when worries can be thought about more.


Use rewards in and out of school to help children manage their anxiety about getting to school and managing at school. This should be age appropriate and not too expensive.

Taking care of self and others

Encourage children to think about their own mental health including eating healthily, exercising, doing things they enjoy, spending time with others. In addition, practice being kind to self and others. Remember it took us time to adapt to the lockdown, and it will take time to adapt back.  Go easy on yourself.

Dr Jess Richardson
Principal Clinical Psychologist
National and Specialist CAMHS and Maudsley 

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