Communication and support for vulnerable learners

Schools have closed for most pupils due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Communication is vital for ensuring vulnerable learners and their families feel supported

Author details

Liz Murray has worked in education for 20 years, as an accredited advanced skills teacher, pastoral and curriculum leader, SENCO and assistant headteacher. She has worked across the mainstream and independent sectors. She is also the founder of...

Schools are in uncharted waters, working to care for the children of key workers and other vulnerable young people who need to be supported in a school environment to keep them safe. 

According to DfE guidance: ‘Vulnerable children include children who are supported by social care, those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including child in need plans, on child protection plans, ‘looked after’ children, young carers, disabled children and those with education, health and care plans.’

Changing routines

As all school leaders and SENCOs know, supporting young people who fall into the above categories requires careful planning and provision during the best of times. So now, where routines have been thrown into disarray, and all of us feel disenfranchised from normality, these young people will be feeling uncertain, confused and scared.

We need to consider the emotions of the children of key workers, whose parents may be working on the frontline in hospitals or other healthcare provisions coming directly into contact with patients who have the coronavirus; their children may be very anxious, their routines disrupted and missing their friends who are now being home schooled.

We can try to minimise anxiety by thinking about how to pre-empt issues within our new normal.

In most schools a rota system is being trialled to reduce the numbers of people in contact with each other. In some local authorities’ schools have been banded together into a community and will rotate their staff between them. This makes good sense from an operational and safety perspective, but it means that some young people may be looked after by staff who do not know them.

This may exacerbate student anxiety further and is not conducive for effective provision. The situation is out of our control but as professionals we can try to minimise anxiety by thinking about how to pre-empt issues within our new normal.

Practical planning for vulnerable learners

Most schools operate a detailed SEND register and already have pupil profiles or passports which are used by teaching staff. These could be updated to add anything that is particularly current and to include, if it doesn’t already, what the pupil’s interests are and what works well to calm and support the young person when anxious. If these are printed off (and laminated, so as to be wiped clean) then they can be given to members of staff working with that student on any given day.

Consider planning for vulnerable pupils or families who may have chosen to stay at home or be in isolation

A similar kind of profile could be created for all the pupils who are attending school. Just as pupil passports for SEND pupils are often co-produced with parents and learners, these could be developed in consultation with parents.

Many key workers are very concerned about their children being in school when their friends are not, and so it would give them an opportunity to offer strategies and ideas that would support their child during these unusual times.

Vulnerable learners at home

Also consider planning for vulnerable pupils or families who may have chosen to stay at home or be in isolation due to illness. Some schools are arranging a rota for a regular telephone call from an appropriate member of staff to check on these families and have a chat with key children.

For these young people, keeping up a connection with a key adult that they know in school and having the reassurance of knowing that they are being ‘held in mind’ could be paramount to ensuring their emotional wellbeing during this period of uncertainty.

Building a programme in school

Schools have been told that all expectations regarding educational provision have been lifted and that the purpose is to provide care instead. This means that schools have flexibility to organise their day in a way that will work for the children and young people in their care. 

Managing stress will be a priority for students but also for the adults caring for them. Building in activities that can help with reducing stress and encouraging a sense of calm will be important.  Creative activities such as art, music and exercise could help. For younger pupils activities such as drawing can help them to process what is happening.

Build in small group sessions with learners of a similar age to allow space for children to share their thoughts

It might be useful to develop scripts and social stories (see more below) to help staff explain what is happening and give time to talk about it. Even though the school day may only partially resemble a normal routine, it could be helpful to build in small group sessions with learners of a similar age to allow space for children to share their thoughts and to normalise feelings of worry.

Signs of stress – supporting parents

Schools may wish to send some guidance home to parents regarding signs of stress in children and young people.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) had this to say about the current situation.

‘Being out of school for an indeterminate length of time, with reduced access to outdoor play facilities and social spaces is likely to be difficult for many children. For families living in overcrowded conditions this will add to the stresses of daily life considerably. Families living in close proximity for extended periods are likely to find this to be stressful.

'Adults will need to be aware of their stress responses, and also able to recognise how children and young people are exhibiting signs of stress. Signs of stress will vary for every child. Some children may verbalise their worries, others may withdraw into themselves, others may engage in challenging behaviours.’

The BPS have published advice on how to talk to children about coronavirus which you can download from their website. Key points include:

  • tell the truth but keep it age appropriate
  • allow questions
  • try to manage your own concerns and be aware of your stress responses
  • give practical advice such as how to wash your hands.

Communication to support those with disabilities

For children and young people with speech, language and communication needs it will be important to explain the situation in a way that they can understand. Using social stories and plain language can help.

Here are some links to social stories suitable for different age groups; these could be sent home to parents and used with pupils in schools.

  • An online book explaining what the coronavirus is. Suitable for younger children and older students with speech language and communication needs.
  • A social story about the coronavirus and school closures, suitable for younger children with autism or SLCN.
  • A detailed social story about the coronavirus and school closures, with a separate pictorial guide to hand washing.
  • A simple language and picture guide to the coronavirus by and for people with disabilities.

picturepath offer a free app where you can design a routine for the day, which is particularly useful for autistic learners. They are currently working to make all the school symbols available for parents to use on the mobile app. The premium version of picturepath allows you to create multiple routines, making it quicker and easier to build each day.

Further useful links

TES have created a free online coronavirus hub with a range of resources from social stories to home learning support for schools and parents.

Last Updated: 
26 Mar 2020