Coronavirus (COVID-19) - getting back to school

Supporting emotional wellbeing and learning needs in the transition back to formal schooling

This resource, which collates ideas and materials from many sources both within Cumbria and more widely, aims to support schools in the transition back into school attendance.

This resource has a professional focus:  it is about the needs of the pupils, staff and families and how we, as professionals, can support them.  It tries to suggest support approaches and materials which schools can use flexibly, within their own structure for the return to school.

If you would like any further or related information, please contact your Educational Psychologist or relevant Specialist Advisory Teacher. 

Your own needs

It is important to think about your own needs as you read this and not just those of children, families and other staff.  The materials below do contain some links to resources about personal support for adults, largely from a professional standpoint.  You might also want to consider seeking some personal support through one of the sources suggested below:

  • Coronavirus (COVID-19) - information for education settings - support by call or text, staffed by trained volunteers and run jointly by established charities.
  • or call 01228 226119 between 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.  This is a Cumbria County Council organised support line, available to teachers and staff.
  • Helpline for advice and emotional support - A helpline offering advice and emotional support has been extended to be available 24/7 as people across Lancashire and South Cumbria deal with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic on their mental health.
  • Together We Talk is here to help you understand and recognise your own mental health and wellbeing. This includes looking at what things may affect the way you feel and how this affects the way you behave and think.
  • Big White Wall -  An anonymous community (South Cumbria) where members can support each other. Access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  • Normal NHS support is available as usual, via your GP. 


Underlying principles

  1. In any circumstances, all children and young people have a core set of needs (DOC 34KB)
  2. Every child/young person will have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic uniquely, and have different support needs (DOC 41KB)
  3. Children's understanding of risk and cause develops as they mature, and is not like that of adults:  we need to take this into account, in supporting them to transition back to school (DOC 29KB)
  4. Every child/young person takes their own course through learning, and will be at a subtly different stage from others (DOC 26KB)
  5. Pupils develop their own preferred learning styles, and usually learn most effectively when they can use those (DOC 26KB)
  6. The teacher role should be to facilitate learning and development, rather than just to transmit specified knowledge (DOC 27KB)
  7. 'Metalearning' - learning how to learn - is the most important part of the academic curriculum (DOC 26KB).

Areas for school action

So, in the light of all this, what will you need to put in place as a school?  It may be helpful to consider this under the following headings.  Each of these is briefly described below, together with materials and advice. The activities and materials will focus on the lower 3 tiers of the BPS model (Basic needs/physical resources, Information, Support/psychological first aid). The upper tier (Psychological intervention) would be accessed through existing NHS, County Council and third sector based services, which will be signposted.

There is a regular, detailed and practical Update from Cumbria County Council's  Education Tactical Coordination Group (EDTC) - and your school's link General Advisor can help with planning to implement the advice therein.

National guidance from

This section includes materials about the physical environment, contact with pupils and parents before the return and the identification of pupils likely to have difficulties. 

Serpentine and the Magic Bubbles - Story for primary aged children which parents can use before children return. (Could also be used by staff.) 

A SWAN Framework - webinar - Free webinar by Pookie Knightsmith, about supporting a safe return to school.  She recommends it for families as well as staff.  

Information for parents - put information on school website.  Before a group of pupils returns, consider holding a remote Q&A session with staff and parents.  Consider use of a school blog for parents- remember that parents will talk online, and it is better if they can talk with you than talk about you on another forum. Wellbeing newsletter for parents by a primary school head teacher, useful as a model. 

The physical environment.  Organise this to meet latest guidelines and make sure you have informed parents of how this has been done. Think about how you will explain this to children.

Video tour of school.  School will look a bit different. Consider making a video of school and sharing it before pupils return.

Children and PPE.  It is very important that school does not appear threatening or dangerous to children. If staff have to wear PPE this will need to be explained carefully. There are several Youtube videos. Ideally, you would use a social story which was written for your specific situation.   Edinburgh Live is hospital focused, but very good.

Social Stories about the new situation. How to write a social storySandbox enables you to personalise social stories.  Social stories linked to COVID-19 - Autism Resource Central, BingUseful website of social stories and other resources - designed with autism in mind, but useful for other children too.  

Identify and plan for pupils with extra needs You know who they are -  eg SENs, EHCPs, medical needs, anxiety, recent bereavement.  At the start of the lockdown period, schools identified pupils at risk - those pupils (and some others) will be likely to need extra support when returning.  Plan two or three levels of support:  calming classroom activities and settings, alternative activities for pupils who become agitated or are unable to focus, opportunities for pupils to talk in a quiet place.  These can then be accessed flexibly. (See the section about creating a safe environment.) Some pupils will need an individual plan, like an IEP, but it will be hard to do this until you see how they are reacting.  Support is still available from County Psychological Service and Specialist Teaching Service, to help with planning.  A free course on preparing for autistic children's return to school.

This section includes materials about initial activities to use with pupils (at whole school and classroom levels) and transition activities (at class, group and individual levels). 

Assemblies - These may have to happen in small groups (perhaps all watching on screen in their classrooms), but it is an important way to give a positive starting message, and encourage a sense of belonging to the school community.

Sharing experiences - It is important to help pupils share and reflect on their experiences, to help them consolidate their thinking and be ready to move forward.  You could use some activities such as the making of a Covid-19 time Capsule (PDF 208KB), as a focus for doing this.  

Weighing it up (DOC 28KB)This is an activity to help you in involving the whole school in collaboratively planning the way forward.  Giving people a sense of participation and agency will be hugely important, in motivating them and giving them confidence to engage.  

Initial activities - Initially, activities need to focus on getting pupils used to following routines and safe behaviour, interacting with others within the rules and building the ability to engage with activities and sustain concentration.  It is more important for pupils to enjoy most of the day than that they should make academic gains.  Present engaging activities with reduced academic demands but opportunities for collaboration and creativity.  Play and social interaction are centrally important.  Guardian article about prioritising play, 7 May 2020.

Choice - Build in opportunities for children to choose activities, and observe what they choose and how they engage.  This will let you know when they can be asked to do more structured or challenging academic tasks. The element of control involved in choosing will increase confidence and motivation for pupils.  Initially, think of your classroom as a workshop with you as facilitator, rather than as a way to deliver the curriculum.

Transitions - All pupils are transitioning back into school:  some are also transitioning into a new setting or Key Stage - and they have missed the usual preparation for that.  They may feel strongly the loss of previous friendships and routines.  List of some resources which may help in planning support - it includes a pupil workbook on transition for primary age (adapted from existing BEWO transition course), and links to various external sites and resources.

Supporting about the loss of opportunity to say goodbye to primary school -  ELSA resources - memory book to record thoughts, feelings, memories about school as well as photos. (You could easily create your own format for a booklet).  Consider how to build resilience in your pupils.  A Primary School memory book can be downloaded (not free, small fee) Copyright means it can't be shared.   Book by Deborah M Plummer - Helping Children to cope with change, stress and anxiety.  Resilience framework (lots of different formats, as well as resources for whole school academic resilience).

What if? - A board game for pupils, to support them in thinking about how they will cope with new situations.  You can add your own cards, with situations specific to the return to your school.  There are suggestions for other uses of the cards.  Currently free to download.  

This section includes materials about the physical environment, the emotional and social environment and arrangements for monitoring and supporting. 

Staff preparation 

In this stressful time for you as school staff, ensure that you find ways of taking care of yourself and colleagues. The following links may be helpful to check out: Mental Health at Work and Mental Health at Work - our frontline  

Things to consider reflecting on in general terms for keeping students and families safe will include:

  • Emotional support linked to: uncertainty; sickness; possible bereavement; loss of control; finances; loss of learning skills and restricted social contact. Reflect on what your students' priorities are and how they change each week.
  • Consider how to create comfort, connectivity, creativity, accomplishments, fun. 
  • All students need strategies for holistic recovery, some need focussed selected programmes and strategies and a few may need specific more targeted one work. Please use CCC, NHS and voluntary sector professionals to explore what and who might help with this.

The Classroom After the Storm: Going back to school after a pandemic

Carpenter's Recovery Curriculum

Partnership for children (skills for life may be a helpful curriculum for strengthening mental health) 

Mindup 15-lesson curriculum-based that teaches students from 3 to 14 the skills to regulate stress and emotions.

The Crowdsourced guide to learning 

Recovery College CHIME factors
(Connections, Hope, Identity, Meaning, Empowerment).Welcome the child to school - make them feel they belong. Work on CHIME maybe through Person Centred Planning.

Video clips illustrating openness to listening We Will campaign "Boy" and "Just Listen" may be helpful to encourage pupils to listen to each other and reassure them adults will listen to them.

Buddy and befriending schemes - These can help children feel like they belong in a school and can be important factor in reducing conflict.

Outdoor no contact games and activities (PDF 790KB)A useful list of socially distant playground games and activities, which could be taught to groups of children, and would allow them to play together with some supervision. 

Information base - Set up an area in school where students can access information leaflets and contact details for helplines:

Sensory environment 

  • Consider possible sensory overload linked to high anxiety and social distance fears or separation anxiety and record what school will do to support.
  • Consider the Too Noisy App - a visual guide for when noise escalates.
  • Liberty (2017) undertook research into reducing stress in schools after the New Zealand earthquakes and makes recommendations about the classroom environment (summary pg. 198).

Worksheets on what has changed for pupils - Consider the child's lockdown experience and what has changed in their lives - home and school. Consider a collective book or pieces of art to capture these - write newspaper article or use time capsule (PDF 208KB).  I have I am I can sheet (PDF 156KB)

Young Minds activity for staff and pupils re hopes for the future year

Balancing - Worksheet to identify times, people and conditions that may help us to cope and feel more settled when things get tough.

Use emotional regulation - Calm corners, regulation stations and relaxation resources. 

Hold whole-class sessions, such as mindfulness exercises and ensure that all staff take part. Fun activity to start the day - 10 minutes to breathe relax, wobble and laugh.

Time out cards -  Ensure children have access to a system which is understood by all staff which enables them to leave the classroom and go to a safe space if they feel overwhelmed. 

Create safety posters -  Allow children to create posters which reinforce keeping safe in physical space; when around people and when doing activities. 

Class worry box - 
Create anonymous (if they wish) worry box where children can post worries and discuss these and solutions to them regularly. 

Establish support circles - Class activity to record various levels of support and who gives children this.  

Daily check in - Circle TimeEncourage (but accept reluctance) children to share something positive at the start of each day e.g. someone they helped whilst off. At the start of each lesson encourage discussion of anything they learned while away from school - include baking a cake, accessing online learning, books read, new exercises etc.

Objects of comfort - Allow children to bring something into school that may comfort them. Encourage peers to be respectful of what that is.

Journals or daily logs of how they are feeling - Encourage children to share worries with themselves in journal or talk to adults. Encourage them to shelve some things for later and try not to deal with all at. Make an appointment for  worry sessions. Encourage them to shout it - through voicing worries, jumping, exercise, draw or write, draw a symbol of the worries like a monster and jump on it. Build in re-sets to the day. Volcano in my Tummy the Unworry Book.

Barry Carpenter Recovery CurriculumChildren and young people may have lost routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom. These need to be re-established whilst bearing in mind their anxieties and anger about all that has happened and discomfort about returning.

Visual schedules - 
Once known, create a timetable of what might happen across the day - lessons, social times etc so children can check to reassure. Include out of school activities and morning routines which may have to be adjusted.

This section includes materials about motivational activities, recovering skills and moving on with learning.

Engagement with Learning- materials for staff training - An excellent summary of conditions & actions needed for engagement with learning.  Staff could read and discuss, and use to kick off planning.  This is not specific to COVID - a reminder of general good teaching principles, independent of curriculum constraints.

This site is more general, about potential changes to education models across the world, due to the virus.

Recovery Curriculum (PDF 506KB)Barry Carpenter writes clearly about the 5 elements needed, stressing that it is not centrally about catching up lost time in learning the formal curriculum.

There is an introductory article, and the evidence for learning website lets you access a series of useful podcasts.

Knowledge vs Tool Skills - Some parents and staff are anxious about missed curriculum content/knowledge.  However, that is not likely to be a long term problem - children do not take a linear path through learning, and will fill in any necessary gaps with your ongoing support, as time goes on.  They will also have gained some unplanned knowledge whilst off school - their brains were still switched on!

What is more important now  is to make sure that they have the 'tool skills' needed for school learning, in good order.  These include listening, talking, reading, writing.  Some of these may be rusty - and for many this could be the literacy skills.  Even where basic reading is clearly still fluent, pupils may have fallen out of the habit of engaging actively with text, or analysing it.  Staff already have a wide range of teaching materials and strategies: what is needed is to start with oral/oral approaches, and build confidence and skills back, through carefully selected activities which are appropriately differentiates. 

The What Binder web page is a reminder of the range of literacy skills needed in engaging well with text, and has lots of teaching suggestions.  It is targeted at older pupils/adults, but applies across ages.

Children's books to explain the situation or defuse worry - There are loads of good resources online, mostly free.  These can be used at school, or recommended to parents to use before children return. The Everybody worries picture book relates to anxiety about the virus.

Picture book about how to interact with and support others without touch (PDF 1MB).  It could just as well be in the 'safe environment' section - but could also be a lovely activity to reengage pupils with sharing and recording their ideas.  

Curriculum content - You will need to be especially sensitive and creative about the content of curriculum topics.

Children will want space to talk about their covid-related experiences and ideas - but they also will need time to think about other things, and get away from the dominance of covid.  Finding the right balance will be hard, and is for your ongoing professional judgment.

You will need to think in advance, about what covid-related material is likely to come up within curriculum topics, and be prepared.  Sometimes you might want to use the opportunity to increase their knowledge about it/dispel rumours - at other times, you might want to navigate around a potentially distressing topic.  The curriculum is rich in related material, for example:

  • probability and risk
  • the biology of viruses
  • history of public health and illness (e.g. GCSE module on history of medicine)

CDEC has developed CARE - Compassionate and Restorative Education, a new training course and toolkit, in response to the challenges schools are facing at the moment as a direct result of COVID-19. We recognise that the effects of COVID-19 for children, families, schools are not short lived. 

The main aim: to support teachers, pupils, schools and communities in a compassionate and restorative educational approach to aid transition, recovery and learning following COVID-19.

The training will help teachers to empower young people to become more compassionate, resilient learners and active citizens of the future.  

This is not a free resource, and requires ongoing commitment from the school to build this into their ethos and practice. 

Early Years transition news sheet from Public Health 5-19 (PDF 604KB) - contains advice and links to resources

Y6 transition newsletter from Public Health 5-19 (PDF 470KB) - contains advice and links - including to eschool nurse and Kooth

Y11 transition newsletter from Public Health 5-19 (PDF 342KB) - includes Teenage Brain and self-help

Transition activities and materials from Young Minds charity:  a good range, worth browsing and selecting from.  There are also lots of other helpful mental health related resources.

Cumbrian transition materials:  the BEWOS have, over the years, developed and delivered courses and materials around Y6/7 transition.  The materials include a workbook for pupils, which can be taken home and shared with parents, containing a range of activities.  These have been adapted to stand alone (ie without the course) and are given here:

  1. Rate my feelings (DOC 51KB)
  2. Jake's Journal (DOC 27KB)
  3. Feelings Road (DOC 52KB)
  4. My personal strengths (DOC 13KB)
  5. Differences (DOC 39KB)
  6. Timetable (JPG)
  7. Timetable quiz (DOC 39KB)
  8. Five stage problem solving model (DOC 25KB)
  9. Five stage problem solving model works (DOC 67KB)
  10. Problem solving cards (DOC 30KB)
  11. Learning styles worksheet (JPG)
  12. Three things I can manage without help (DOC 12KB)
  13. Three things I might need help with (DOC 12KB)
  14. Coping strategies pocket prompt (DOC 28KB)
  15. Emotional resilience sheet (DOC 14KB)
  16. I have I am I can sheet (PDF 156KB)
  17. Why friends are important (DOC 35KB)
  18. Good or not so good friendship skills (DOC 55KB)
  19. My top 5 friendship skills (DOC 130KB)
  20. Where are your friends? (DOC 218KB)
  21. Who do I admire? (DOC 1.3MB)
  22. What would you like to do? (DOC 91KB)
  23. My life line (DOC 324KB)
  24. Transition workbook fronts (DOC 252KB)
  25. Transitions workbook backs (DOC 114KB)

The transition From Primary to Secondary school (DOC 157KB):  a training resource.  This was produced in association with Young Minds, as part of the Tamhs project. 

The Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA) project has a wealth of relevant materials, some free and some at low cost.

10 minute video on transition for children with ASC/SEND

Early Years website - this website includes some COVID-19 specific advice for settings

Cumbrian materials about Bereavement in Educational Settings