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How to welcome back your students: adopting a trauma-informed approach

Asking the question ‘What did you do over the summer holidays?’ seems to go hand-in-hand with oversized blazers, nameless school jumpers and shiny new water bottles when it comes to the start of a new school year. For many children, this question provides the opportunity to slowly fall back into the routines and expectations of the classroom, introducing social skills such as turn taking, listening and responding to a conversation partner, literacy skills including broadening vocabulary, handwriting practice and spelling and maths skills around time, money and sequencing.

According to The Children’s Society, 30% of children in the UK live in poverty, with a 107% increase in children receiving emergency food since 2020. The financial strains incurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic followed by the current cost of living crisis mean that The Children’s Society predict up to five million children living in poverty by the end of the year. For a child living in poverty (which could be as many as nine children in a class of 30), asking what they did over their holidays can shine a spotlight on these difficulties. Children can feel it acutely when it becomes obvious that they don’t have the same things their classmates have - they describe feeling sadness, shame, embarrassment, alienation or even experiencing bullying.

When a teacher asks a question in class, it is more than a friendly chat. Because of the power we have, our questions become requirements. For our pupils who find school the safest and most secure place in their lives, reflecting on six weeks away from school can be extremely uncomfortable.

What can we do to ensure that we provide an inclusive and welcoming return to school for all our students? Here are a selection of questions that take a trauma-informed approach, considering ways of exploring how the summer has been whilst showing sensitivity to every child’s situation.

We have collated some suggestions for alternative conversation starters to ‘what did you do over the summer holidays?’ that can open up the same learning opportunities whilst remaining mindful of the individual experiences of your learners.

If you would like to hear more about their summer holidays, try asking more open-ended questions that don’t make assumptions around how a ‘typical’ summer holiday is spent.

  • Pick three words to describe your summer.

  • Tell me something that surprised you this summer.

  • How did you change/grow over summer?

  • Tell me about something that you wish you had taken a photo of.

  • If your teddies could tell me about your summer, what would they say?

  • If you could make a play/book/game about your summer, what would it be called?

For the children who have had an enjoyable, fun-filled summer, they are likely to wish to share these experiences with peers and school staff without prompting. Therefore, we would suggest avoiding any conversation starters that focus on the past six weeks and instead, think about the future, using a positive psychology approach to planning ahead.

  • What is the one thing you’ve been looking forward to about the new school year?

  • What do you think you could teach the class about this year?

  • What are three things you want to do this school year?

Don’t forget, there are many questions that can be asked which will encourage the same skill development but remain trauma-sensitive in their nature.

  • If you could only eat food of the same colour for the rest of your life, what colour would you pick?

  • If you could be any celebrity, who would you choose and why?

  • If you had to spend the day as an animal, which animal would you pick?

  • If toys came to life whilst you were at school, what would they get up to?

  • If you were the teacher for a day, what would you teach our class?

  • If you could change your name, what would you change it to?

For more information regarding methods for supporting our most vulnerable learners with their return to school, please get in touch via email or by phoning Learning & Wellbeing Psychology on 0300 303 5197.

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