This guide will cover some of the changes or challenges students may experience when returning to school after a significant event, and how schools and teachers can prepare and support students during that transition period. It has been developed with students with disability in mind but is useful for all students.
A significant and stressful event, such as a lengthy illness, natural disaster, death in the family, or the COVID-19 pandemic, can impact a student’s development and general sense of wellbeing. Psychological adjustment to stress, trauma, and loss looks very different from student to student. The timing of how a student adjusts will also vary depending on the student and circumstance.
It is important that student wellbeing and adjustment is monitored over time, and not just in the days and weeks directly following the event. Returning to school after experiencing a significant event or stressor may be an emotional or otherwise challenging experience for some students.
Providing additional structures and supports to facilitate a positive return to school may be particularly important for students with disability.
What responses might you see in classrooms after a significant and stressful event?
Every student is unique. Some students may feel positive about a return to school, where they have supports and friendships that help them to cope after a significant and stressful event. Some students may feel apprehensive, but settle back into a routine quickly.
Other students may benefit from strategies and supports to help them navigate changes and disruptions as they transition back to school. Recognising some of the responses that may occur in the students you support, and understanding why these responses may occur, can help you identify how you can best provide support before and after they return to school.
The key thing to look for is a change in the student’s usual demeanour, behaviour, and routines.
Some students may experience:
- Fears related to the stressful event itself (e.g. fears about COVID-19 and becoming unwell; fears about their loved ones’ safety)
- Increased signs or symptoms of anxiety, such as avoidance, hypervigilance, excessive worries, and difficulty concentrating.
- Signs of trauma or distress
- Overly vigilant and/or compulsive behaviours (e.g., increased ‘safety’ behaviours such as excessive handwashing), and increased tics
- Panic attacks (short periods of fear or panic with significant physical symptoms, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, and feeling sick).
- Masking or hiding their feelings of stress and anxiety. This can be difficult to spot, as they may be reluctant to seek help or have attention drawn to them.
- Separation anxiety or school refusal.
- Reduced motivation, loss of interest, withdrawal from activities or peers, low mood, negative thinking, and reduced self-esteem or self-confidence.
- Some students may find regulating their emotions challenging. They may experience mood swings, or become frustrated, angry or distressed more quickly or readily than previously.
- Increased dependence on others
- Some young people may self-harm, or express suicidal thoughts.
- Disruptions to routine can result in feelings of anxiety in some students, including students with disability.
- When there is environmental change, students with disability can have difficulty ‘picturing’ what will happen next, and this can be frightening.
- Some students may have experienced reduced or limited access to friendships or other social supports outside the immediate family unit.
- Students have experienced heightened stress and demand. These increased demands can reduce their capacity for self-regulating their emotions.
- Caregivers or family members may also experience anxiety, distress or disruptions to mental health during a significant and stressful event. This can, in turn, increase distress in the young people they support.
- Loss of access to institutional supports and interventions (e.g. at school; health professionals).
- Students may experience increased stress and anxiety if they have fallen behind with school work.
- Separations from family after long periods at home can be difficult for some students.
Social skills and friendship
What might you see?
- Social and communication skills may have changed.
- For example, some students may find it more challenging to cooperate with peers.
- A prolonged absence from school settings and friendships results in less time using social and communication skills.
- Significant and stressful events may also disrupt a student’s access to ongoing intervention with health professionals, or shift the focus from social and communication skills to a focus on managing wellbeing.
What might you see?
- Some students may be restless, or engage in reckless, aggressive or self-destructive behaviour.
- Some students may have outbursts.
- Some students may show an increased preference for rigid, restricted or repetitive behaviours.
- Some students may engage in a range of behaviours of concern.
- Increased demands on a student (such as stress and anxiety, changes to routine, or sensory input) can disrupt their ability to engage in positive coping behaviours. This can lead to frustration or emotionally based behaviours, or unhelpful coping behaviours.
- Rigid, restricted or repetitive behaviours are some of the ways a student may try to cope with the changes to their routines and environment.
Learning and attention
What might you see?
- Some students may be less engaged with their learning, and/or their learning needs may have changed.
- Some students may try to hide that they have fallen behind. They may be reluctant to ask for help, particularly if they are worried about their peers knowing.
- Some students may find instructions difficult to follow.
- Some students may find it difficult to concentrate, or to shift their attention.
- Prolonged absences from school can result in students falling behind in their studies, and students may not have had to sustain attention during those periods.
- Significant and stressful events can result in disruptions to sleep, and ability to concentrate and focus.
What might you see?
- Increased distress or discomfort from sensory input
- Difficulties in filtering out sensory input during learning.
- Often a student’s home environment is a place where they feel safe, and has a lowered sensory input compared to the school environment. After a prolonged absence, students may need time to readjust to the noisy and stimulating school environment, and to revisit the strategies they previously used to manage this input.
How can schools support students during their return to school?
A teacher’s primary role when a student returns after a significant and stressful event is to continue to provide a positive learning environment. A consistent school routine can help protect students who have been through a difficult experience, and your focus should be on continuing to support students with their learning and their sense of belonging in your classroom.
Consider how you can tailor your approach to the student’s current mental health and wellbeing, social functioning, and learning. Flexibility and communication are key to reassuring the student and their family that they do not have to ‘get back to normal’ straight away, and indeed for some students it may take much of the term or first couple of terms to reorientate to life at school.
Some of the ways you can support students when they return are below.
Partner with the student's carers in the lead up to return to school
- Highlight what has not changed during their absence, and prepare them for any changes that have occurred. Provide a clear and positive overview about the process of the student’s return. Consider providing timetables/schedules in advance, or social stories with photos or videos of the school and classroom environment.
- Ask carers/parents to outline their child’s experiences while absent from school, including any changes they’ve observed that may be relevant, new diagnoses, or strategies they’ve found helpful.
- Discuss with families whether updates may be needed to student Personalised Learning and Support Plans, Individual Health Plans, or whether targeted supports or intervention may be needed. Collaboration with health professionals when planning may also be helpful.
- Facilitate clear and regular communication to families, and consistency between home and school where possible. For example, use the strategies that carers have highlighted as being helpful at home within the classroom.
- Opportunities for carers to connect with other parents/carers at school, and communication about supports they can access, can be positive for parents and their children.
Provide time and opportunity for physical activity and play or time with peers
- Physical activity (through play for younger students) incorporated throughout the school day can boost mood, and has been linked to improved social communication.
- Regular time spent with friends can help students re-establish social and communication skills. Consider how you can provide time for students to spend time together, through group learning activities and structured interest-based clubs during lunchtimes.
Support emotion regulation and wellbeing
- Students who are showing signs that their wellbeing or mental health have been impacted should be referred to their learning and support team, school wellbeing staff, or a general practitioner.
- For more information on supporting student wellbeing, visit Simple guide to supporting student social and emotional wellbeing.
- Mindfulness activities can be helpful for some students. Some students with disability may not enjoy mindfulness, and may instead prefer to engage in more structured and concrete wellbeing activities.
- When a significant and stressful event has occurred that impacts both staff and students, opportunities for shared connection and a sense of belonging may be important. Wellbeing activities and self-care can help staff manage some of the emotions and demands they may be experiencing, which can have positive flow-on effects for the students they support.
Re-establish a safe, predictable and familiar environment
- Provide clear structures and routines, including frequent brief breaks. Note that routines may need to be explicitly re-taught.
- Use a consistent, fair, and positive approach to managing behaviours of concern.
- Where feasible, connect with students before their return.
- Some students may prefer a staggered return to school while they readjust to routines and the learning environment (e.g. shorter days or brief visits before returning).
- Provide opportunities for students to spend time with a familiar teacher and peers.
Consider how you can reduce sensory load
- Evaluate the classroom and school environment to see if there are changes that can be made to reduce sensory input.
- Provide safe, low stimulation places that students can access during lessons, and during lunch or morning tea breaks.
- Allow students to take breaks or use other strategies to manage sensory stimulation.
Modify learning activities
- Some students may be eager to return to their learning, and other students may take time to re-engage. Providing engaging learning opportunities that are tailored to student abilities, while avoiding academic pressure, can help students ease back into a learning routine.
- After a prolonged absence, some students may find sitting still or focusing for long periods challenging. Consider how movement can be incorporated into the learning environment (e.g. brief movement breaks, standing desks). For more information, visit movement breaks for physical wellbeing.
- Check in regularly and discreetly with students to gauge how they are finding their work, and normalise and encourage asking for help.
Support student understanding
- Some students may need time to understand significant and stressful events, and how these have impacted their day-to-day routines.
- Use simple, age-appropriate and concrete language when talking with students about these events.
- If appropriate, provide opportunities for students to talk about their experiences and share their concerns. This can help gauge their understanding, as well as provide time for them to express their needs and emotions.
- Social stories, visual supports, and clear and repeated communication can help students understand new routines or rules.