Education has been a fragmented experience for many children across the globe over the past 18 months. As schools have had to pivot rapidly to online or blended learning models, supporting the wellbeing of both students and staff has become an increasingly prominent focus for international schools.

The stop-start nature of the return to school amidst the ever-changing rules of the pandemic continues to bring challenges as schools begin to rebuild the sense of community that they have inevitably found slipping away. But as the world gets closer to being able to live with COVID-19, schools are stepping away from Zoom and starting to reconnect their communities in person.

Let’s look at some of the ways you can do this effectively.

1. Renew relationships and cultivate new connections

Communities are built on strong relationships with nobody left out, so don’t leave this to chance. As you welcome your students back, begin with adding inclusion activities to classroom routines. The Casel Signature Practices Playbook has some great ideas for welcoming activities that you can use to make sure every student has a chance to make a connection. These range from simple actions such as warmly greeting each student at the door, to planned activities such as a ‘greeting frenzy’, during which everyone in the class introduces themselves and greets each person in the room by name, accompanied by physical contact, if appropriate, such as a fist or elbow bump.

Taking the idea of making connections a step further, Harvard’s ‘Making Caring Common’ project has a useful relationship mapping tool that you can use to make sure every child in your school has at least one trusted adult they can go to for support. The idea is to identify students who lack positive connections with an adult and to pair them with a suitable mentor. As they comment, “For students, a positive connection to at least one school adult — whether a teacher, counselor, sports coach, or other school staff member — can have tremendous benefits that include reduced bullying, lower drop-out rates, and improved social emotional capacities.”

2. Create safe learning environments

Alongside helping your students feel connected with each other and with your staff, you should also do what you can to make sure they feel psychologically safe on their return to school. That means making sure that classrooms provide a supportive environment where students feel a sense of belonging. As Casel points out, you can do this by “being responsive to students’ perspectives and needs, affirming all students’ full identities, and establishing structures that create predictability and consistency”.

In practice, that could mean adopting strategies such as conducting regular student surveys, arranging one-to-ones and creating routines so that students know what to expect. You can download a tool to help develop routines that engender a feeling of emotional safety among your students.

3. Make time to talk about the pandemic and its impact

The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. Many will have struggled with social isolation, boredom and perhaps fear; some will have lost family members or friends, or had family members lose their jobs. Giving your students the space to talk about what’s happened can be an important part of the healing process for the school community as a whole.

Responsive circles work well as a way of holding structured conversations as a group, addressing questions such as ‘what’s been the hardest thing for you?’. In a one-to-one setting, Casel’s 5-minute chats tool could work well as a way for a student’s trusted adult mentor to talk with them about the impact the pandemic has had on them.

4. Elevate students’ voices

The disruption caused by the pandemic has been something none of us has had any control over, so giving students back a sense of agency is another way to help reunite your school community. Allowing students the chance to provide feedback – such as through surveys, one-to-ones or focus groups – is one way to do this. Another is to adopt the principles of YPAR (Youth-led Participatory Action Research), which trains students to conduct their own research and provide insights into changes you could implement to improve their wellbeing in school.

5. Partner with parents

Don’t forget that parents are part of the school community too, and wherever they are in the world it’s worth leveraging the pandemic by keeping virtual lines of communication with parents open, even after you’ve wound up online learning. Many schools have already reported higher parent attendance at parent-teacher conferences thanks to the ease with which they can Zoom in from work without the need to find childcare for younger children.

You could also think about engagement strategies you could adopt to make your students’ families feel part of the community, such as:

  • Conducting home visits
  • Ensuring each family has a trusted staff member they can go to
  • Offering families the chance to make their views known and feel listened to
  • Making sure signage and other written communications are available in a range of languages
  • Organising family activities and events in and out of school, and using interpreters to overcome language barriers

Finally, whether it’s students, staff or parents, reuniting your school community is all about being inclusive and fostering a sense of belonging. Whichever of these strategies works best for your school and students, the key to (re)building a cohesive community is ensuring that nobody gets left behind as the world opens up.