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Schools as a safe haven

We do not yet know exactly when our schools will re-open but when they do it is clear that there will need to be a shifted focus so that they can be what our children need the most. Our children are still growing and developing and indeed, the ones affected most by this collective trauma.

Mental health and wellbeing now need to be top of the agenda and every other aspect of learning needs to be seen through that lens.

Nobody is suggesting that teachers suddenly become mental health experts or classrooms turned into clinics. The potential for schools to heal traumatised children is already there in the wider school community and it is huge.

Like all of us, children need to find meaning in this experience in order to process and understand it so they can move on. School communities need to offer containment and stabilisation and be 'the secure base, the safe haven' (Dr Karen Treisman).

Some children from vulnerable families will have had their already difficult home situations made even more challenging through exacerbated financial worries and increased exposure to domestic violence. Schools need to be ready to provide support to these children in the ways they really need.

Children most affected by the pandemic will not find it easy to ‘settle to learn’ (Bomber, 2013) and their distress will most likely be seen in their behaviour.

Chronic stress disrupts the nervous system and can manifest as hyper-vigilance and extreme fluctuations in emotion, with children easily triggered into either flight or fight reactions. Other children, mostly girls, may freeze or dissociate, seeming 'dazed' or not really there, in an attempt to retreat from a frightening and unpredictable external world into the safety of an internal world.

1. Hold a formal act of remembrance as a school community

Organised reflection at community level can really help everyone make sense of the experience and find positive meaning. Perhaps a whole school assembly could celebrate all the many achievements of pupils during their time away from school? At the same time it is important to recognise that some children may have lost loved ones and need a space to reflect and remember.

2. Relationships should be promoted and celebrated

Trust needs to be rebuilt and positive relationships between pupils and between pupils and staff really promoted. The more that children have been traumatised, the more positive relational experiences are needed for healing to occur.

‘Every interaction is an intervention' - Dr Karen Treisman

Everyone has a role to play. Everyone can be present and everyone can be kind.

3. Identify and support children in most need

Reinforce messages around the importance of having trusted adults both inside and outside of school.

For some children school might be the only safe space where they feel properly able to talk and be listened to.

Schools need to be flexible as to how and when this support is offered - there needs to be an open door policy. Worry boxes, morning check ins and circle work can all be great ways to check that everyone is doing OK.

4. Reaffirm boundaries, rules and routines

Children do need clear boundaries in order to feel both psychologically and physically safe. If they don't feel safe then they won't be able to learn.

Routines create a sense of safety by helping children know where they stand and what is expected of them.

5. Re-evaluate and reaffirm core values

This experience has given us all time to reflect on what matters most in life. Many of us have decided to make positive changes rather than just go back to our old ways of being. Perhaps this is an opportunity for schools to rewrite what matters most to them as a community and how they can all live those values.

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