Emotional wellbeing advice, guidance and support for highly anxious pupils

This resource was created by a working party from the Specialist Teaching and Learning Service, Kent Educational Psychology Service and partner agencies within Kent.


Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) is not a new phenomenon associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Children and young people miss school for a variety of reasons; a voluntary or involuntary response to personal, family, school or wider environmental factors.

EBSA is a pattern of absence whereby reluctance, or refusal, to attend or stay in an educational setting has its base in anxiety or fear. Risk factors vary and it is important to understand the reasons for poor/non-attendance.

This resource does not provide detailed information about EBSA. However, some of the information and advice obviously draws on that area of study. It is predicted that EBSA, due to anxiety, is highly likely to be an area of concern once schools start re-opening. Contact: Helen.Jones@kent.gov.uk

This google drive resource and it subfolders aims to provide some initial guidance to supporting highly anxious pupils.

Kent Educational Psychology Service will be offering free virtual training on the following topics (full details will be sent out when confirmed):

  • Support for Highly Anxious Children.
  • Support for Anxiety Based School Refusal.

For children who were already highly anxious or were refusing to attend school before the pandemic, it is likely to be a huge challenge for both you as parents, and the staff in their school, to settle them back successfully after recent events.

Helping parents to support anxious children to return to school

The following guidance offers suggestions on how to support an anxious pupil with successfully transitioning back into school, particularly after the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Supporting anxious pupils in a Primary setting

The following guidance offers suggestions on how to support an anxious pupil with successfully transitioning back into school, particularly after the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Supporting anxious pupils in a Secondary setting

Social Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs

Research has identified five key principles for supporting all children and young people to manage the transition back to education after Covid-19. These will be particularly relevant when considering supporting pupils with SEMH needs.

Lots of hands holding wooden letters spelling out SUPPORTStrategies and support should be implemented in a graduated approach depending on the developmental needs of the child/young person and the response to intervention. For further details around supporting vulnerable pupils (e.g. children in care) and pupils experiencing high levels of anxiety please see the resources developed by the relevant working parties.

This resource has been developed by professionals working in Kent, in May 2020 (namely, Andy Young, Liz Ross and Alison Goodsell- Specialist Teachers and Kelly Underdown, Educational Psychologist). Thanks go to Northamptonshire Educational Psychology Service who shared their resources which helped to inform this section.

Key considerations for supporting children and young people with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) to reintegrate back to education settings following Covid-19

Create a sense of safety 

It is important that all adults, children and young people feel safe upon their return to their education setting, especially those with SEMH needs. This can be supported by:

  • Ensuring staff feel emotionally contained themselves before working with vulnerable children and young people so that they can provide containment and reciprocity solihullapproachparenting.com/working-with-covid. For helpful, practical strategies on supporting staff wellbeing see the documents ‘Transition, recovery and learning in the aftermath of a pandemic’ by Biborough Educational Psychology consultation service. This can be accessed via: services2schools.org.uk.
  • Acknowledge that parents will be feeling (understandably anxious) about reintegration. Hence, it is important to communicate regularly with all parents (providing clear information e.g. around risk assessments). Consider vulnerable parents who may need more personalised/intensive support.
  • Supporting the transition to existing or new education settings is fundamental, particularly for children and young people with SEMH needs (who may require more intensive support). Ideally this should begin prior to the transition, for example, through meeting virtually with parents/carers to explore the child/young person’s experience of lockdown and helpful resources/strategies (e.g. considering transition objects). It may be helpful to offer children/young people resources to familiarise them with the setting (e.g. virtual tours, pictures of key staff etc). For some, opportunities to re-connect with trusted staff members will be helpful.
  • In order to support children and young people’s emotional wellbeing, the environment should provide nurture and structure. Where possible, continue with routine activities or use visual support (e.g. Social Stories and visual timetables to communicate changes/new routines/expectations).
  • Staff should provide clear information to children and young people about the strategies that they will implement. This should include explicit information about physical safety and how they can access pastoral support in their education setting.
  • It may be helpful to support children and young people’s understanding of Covid-19 (e.g. to challenge any misinterpretations). There should be consideration of how to explain social distancing to vulnerable children/young people (e.g. those experiencing attachment difficulties) as this may be interpreted as a hurtful rejection by key adults. Resources such as Social Stories are likely to be helpful). Provide opportunities for asking questions about these (e.g. through check-ins with a trusted adult or opportunities to write down/draw any thoughts or questions they have). In Early Years settings, these opportunities are likely to come about when you are engaging with the children in play or at story time. Be honest with them but keep your language simple and matter of fact (reinforced through visuals).

Support emotional literacy 

Upon the return to education following Covid-19, children and young people are likely to experience a range of emotions. It is important that these are normalised, and they are given support to help them manage their emotions and return to a state of calm. This can be supported using the following strategies:

  • It is important that staff (particularly those working with pupils with SEMH needs) recognise the link between emotion and behaviour. Staff should provide opportunities to reflect on this with others (e.g. using functional behavioural approaches such as ABC charts or the STAR approach) and ensure there are support systems in place for staff.
  • Staff should model emotional regulation and staying calm through providing opportunities for co-regulation (e.g. whole class/group mindfulness or yoga exercises). Waves lapping on the shore with the word Mindfulness written in the sand on the beach
  • Make use of emotion regulation strategies in the classroom or nursery setting for all children/young people (e.g. feelings boards, calm corners, relaxation resources, ‘happiness boxes’). Some children may require more intensive support (e.g. using resources such as the zones of regulation or the Incredible 5-point scale (by Buron and Curtis) and through access to individual or small group emotional literacy intervention. Such intervention should be implemented using an assess-plan-do-review approach, overseen by a qualified teacher/SENCo. If there are wider professionals involved it may be helpful to liaise with them (if deemed appropriate by the SENCo).
  • Research has clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of creative learning opportunities to help create calm during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, see research by Karen Mak from UCL and research from the March Network on Creative Isolation.

Promote a sense of self-efficacy

Children need to feel they have some control over what is happening to them, and a belief that their actions are likely to lead to generally positive outcomes (Bandura, 1997). This will be particularly important now (following the Covid-19 pandemic). This can be supported in the following ways:

  • Consider ways to seek children/young people’s views about strategies that they would find helpful to support their reintegration (e.g. through circle time activities, suggestion boxes, sessions with a key adult for more vulnerable pupils). In nursery settings liaise with parents regarding how the child has responded to the coronavirus at home and any helpful strategies/resources. Ensure a consistent approach is used in the nursery setting.
  • Build strengths and capacity – explore children/young people’s strengths and aspirations. Provide opportunities to experience success and to use their strengths.
  • Teach children and young people problem solving skills (at a developmentally appropriate level) and help them to recall times when they have coped with change in the past.
  • Support children/young people to develop self-regulation strategies (at a developmentally appropriate level) so that they feel in control of their emotions (see above).

Promoting hope

Whilst things may feel difficult at the moment, it is important that adults, children and young people feel things will get better and work out in the future. They need to be provided with reassurance and understand that in the long term they will feel positive again.

  • Creating a sense of support for staff in the education setting is key. Work together as a team and agree on how you will answer key questions and concerns.Two hands reaching for each other with sunset in the background
  • Adults to model optimism and kindness. ‘If kindness is shown; then kindness will be received’. It is important to remember to be kind to yourself too.
  • Support children and young people to notice acts of courage and kindness (e.g. using developmentally appropriate activities such as gratitude diaries or gratitude jars or just a simple ‘you were kind’ sticker for younger pupils).
Links to staff training and further support Helpful websites and online resources
Reintegration Resource: we have developed a resource for reintegration based on the 5 key principles in this document. This is in the form of two Powerpoint presentations, one for Early Years/KS1 and another for Year 6/KS3/KS4. These resources can be used for SEMH first aid training for staff. Each presentation consists of three sections – key messages for the Children and Young People and supporting staff.

Useful links and apps

NHS – Every Mind Matters  having good mental health helps us relax more, achieve more and enjoy our lives more. We have expert advice and practical tips to help you look after your mental health and wellbeing.

Big White Wall –  a community of members who support, help each other and share what’s troubling them in a safe and anonymous environment.  (Aged 16-25).

Mind.org.uk – provides advice, support and information on an extensive set of topics from sleep problems to suicidal thoughts.

Safe Hands Thinking Minds– Dr Karen Treisman is a Highly Specialised Clinical Psychologist focusing on dealing with trauma and stress through new and useful information, including videos.

What you should know about returning to school (Google Doc) for young people.

Kent and Medway services are #Hereforyou. If you are concerned about mental health and are not sure what is needed, call the Single Point of Access (SPA) for Kent on 0300 123 4496.


SAM self help app – anxiety management for people who are serious about learning to manage their anxiety.

PACIFICA app – calm down in moments of stress or anxiety using deep breathing, muscle relaxation, positive visualisation, mindfulness meditations and more.

WHAT’S UP app – when you feel negative thoughts taking over, use the app to help you overcome them.

WELLMIND app is designed to help with stress, anxiety and depression.

Rethink Mental Illness have published advice on managing anxiety as lockdown eases, based on the results of their recent survey on easing out of lockdown and its effects on mental health. Advice covers anxiety about leaving the home, fears of getting Coronavirus, uncertainty over the future and support for those continuing to ‘shield’ based on the advice of medical professionals.

Other resources supporting emotional wellbeing for return to schools