From tots to teens – psychology and the school return

Ella Rhodes reports.

Throughout lockdown psychologists from many areas have been working to support, and advocate for, children. As the government plans for pupils to return to schools, but with uncertainty about how this will work in practice, what is the role for psychologists during this transition?

The British Psychological Society’s Covid-19 Coordinating Group has developed numerous resources across the course of the pandemic: from early advice on resilience in teachers in the face of school closures, and supporting care-experienced and looked-after children, to more recently publishing psychology guidance on promoting re-engagement and recovery as children come back to school. As part of this work the Division of Clinical Psychology advised parents on how to support children and young people in times of uncertainty, and how best to make difficult decisions on behalf of children.

The document highlights that even very young children will be affected by the uncertainty in their lives, and points out the importance of managing the information about Covid-19 that children receive. The authors share some useful tips on how parents can talk to children about their own feelings in a sensitive way, how parents can make decisions when they are stressed and worried, and how to support children to manage their own anxiety and worry associated with uncertainty. ‘Children will continue to hear information about the Covid-19 pandemic and it could be quite difficult for them to understand the changes to the rules and why adults may feel anxious. Helping them by managing information they hear, allowing them time to express their feelings, and by ensuring the way adults speak about the pandemic in front of them will help them manage their own anxiety and worries.’

A space for hope
Educational psychologist, lecturer and co-chair elect of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology, Dr Dan O’Hare, has been involved with some of the other BPS outputs for children and their families. He, along with fellow Educational Psychologist Dr Hester Riviere (Oxfordshire County Council), wrote a resilience and coping framework for supporting children back to school which outlines ways to promote and nurture resilience and coping through creating a sense of belonging, strong relationships and agency.

‘If we adopt that resilience approach we have space to think about trauma, harm and anxiety, but it also gives us space to think about strengths and assets and hope. I think the question schools should be considering is, not only how do we mitigate any harm, but how do we promote and strengthen the resilience that has been demonstrated?’

O’Hare said it was key to remember that children were not one homogenous group and that their experiences of lockdown would have been vastly different. ‘There are going to be some children who might experience more stress and anxiety about going back to school, some children have flourished at home and some children have really missed school… Some children will have experienced traumatic circumstances like bereavements or family members who have been seriously ill and some have been spending more time in environments which are perhaps neglectful or within which they experience abusive situations.’

While educational psychologists have been working throughout lockdown, but in adapted ways, once pupils are back in schools their work will involve increased focus in certain areas. O’Hare said one area they are likely to be involved with is critical incident support if members of the school community have died during the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as supporting teachers and other staff and developing ways to maintain wellbeing.

‘Dr Sarah Duffield and I wrote a paper near the start of lockdown about teacher resilience and there’s still things from that which are really important – how do we promote that sense of belonging? How do we promote learning in this really stressful time?’ O’Hare said educational psychologists will be working to support those children with special educational needs who, while schools were open, might have had targeted interventions every day but have missed those for six months.

‘I think our work will also be around emotional needs. Whether that is about readjusting to school, whether it’s about friendships, or anxiety, or behaviour, but taking that view that behaviour is communication. School is a very different structure to home and if there are behaviours that are seen as challenging, we need to unpick why that’s happening. I would expect that there’ll be quite a lot of demand as more children return to school.’

Digital inequality
One of the biggest lessons O’Hare said he’d taken from the pandemic and lockdown was that emergencies such as this were not an equaliser. ‘There’s real digital inequality in society at large. We’ve heard from families where mum, dad, or a carer, has one mobile phone and that’s it, and they’ve got three or four kids, perhaps split across different years in different schools, and they’ve all been assigned online learning. We know that more people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations are dying, so how does that then affect the approach that schools have for children who come from those communities?’

O’Hare has also been interested in children who might be identifying as LGBTQ+. ‘There are many children who may have spent a considerable length of time now in home environments that are not LGBT+ positive and have not been able to have those contacts with friends and connections that really mean a lot to them. How do we meet the specific needs of these children and young people?’

O’Hare said he’d also been reminded of the importance of relationships and connections during the pandemic. ‘It’s reinforced our knowledge of how important relationships and connections are. I heard a really lovely example from a friend whose son had work sent home, it wasn’t expected to all be done, but the teacher would record a video or have a live call and then say something about every single individual child. That connection is so, so important – the teacher-pupil relationship is really powerful in terms of school outcomes.’

One group of academics has been working to provide summaries of research into the potential harms of lockdown for children and young people. Co-chaired by Professor Ellen Townsend, Principal Investigator with the Self-Harm Research Group (University of Nottingham), the Researchers in Education and Adolescent Child Health and Wellbeing (REACHwell) group has published eight research summaries so far on topics including play, social development, mental health and many other issues (see Townsend previously told our Deputy Editor Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne that the idea for REACHwell had come about after discussions with Professor Ian Goodyer (University of Cambridge), co-chair of the group, after feeling frustration by the neglect of children and adolescents in government decision-making during the pandemic.

‘We are concerned about the lack of focus on the needs of this age group, from tots to teens, in policy making during the pandemic. We felt that a group of academic experts focusing solely on the needs of children and adolescents in this crisis was a gap that needed to be filled. We are providing succinct summaries of scientific evidence relating to the impact of lockdowns and social distancing… Reports will also highlight inequalities experienced in these areas.’

Most recently Townsend wrote about the impact of lockdown on self-harm in young people – which was on the increase prior to lockdown with some evidence suggesting that, during lockdown, younger people were more likely to have experienced both self-harm and suicidal thoughts than older age groups. Dr Maria Loades (University of Bath) also wrote a guest post on loneliness in lockdown and its potential to impact the mental health of children and young people for years to come. While there is little evidence on this specific to the context of pandemics, a good amount of the evidence Loades examined suggested that loneliness was associated with depression and anxiety. ‘Loneliness is associated with later depression and anxiety, up to nine years later. There was some evidence that the duration of loneliness is more strongly associated with unfavourable mental health outcomes than the intensity of loneliness.’ Other recent summaries include the challenges for children’s services including CAMHS as lockdown restrictions ease, the potential impact of lockdown on the attainment gap, and the ‘substantial’ impact of lockdown on the mental health of children and young people.

Remote learning
Some schools and colleges will take a ‘blended’ approach, continuing with elements of remote provision. Writing on our Research Digest blog, Emily Reynolds pulled together the evidence on how to get the most out of virtual learning. Tips covered effective note taking, asking ‘pre-questions’, setting goals early, and discussing course content with other students in online forums. She concluded with advice that is likely to be important right across the education system: ‘students and teachers alike should understand their specific needs and the context in which they’re working; if a student has ongoing issues with their internet connection, they’re not going to need advice about self-regulation, while those who find it hard to wake up in the morning might. Working on personalised strategies, therefore, might benefit you the most in the long run.’ 

- See also Teaching Assistants are pivotal to a successful catch-up strategy
Rob Webster unravels the evidence behind the Department for Education's Covid guidance on deploying teaching assistants.

The British Psychological Society continues to produce a range of Covid-19 related resources, for professionals and the public. See

In terms of the university experience, find ‘The Psychologist Guide to [New] University Life and Sarah Hodge and Layla Johnson on the ‘digitally resilient student’.

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