The psychology behind how schools need to re-open

Julie Leoni

Julie Leoni is a psychology, counselling, yoga and meditation teacher whose PhD investigated the links between emotions, gender and deviance in schools. She has written three books on well-being and coaches pupils and staff. She regularly writes for Psychologies Magazine and offers free resources on stress, domestic abuse, meditation and well-being at

Julie was recently interviewed on Radio Shropshire to discuss her latest article The psychology behind how schools need to re-open. The interview can be found here

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Schools can't go back. They need to go forward. Something new has to form.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful way of planning our re-opening.

Physiological needs 

When we re-open, we need to make sure that young people are warm, clothed and fed. We know that some children will not have had these basic needs met during lock-down.


Covid has made us all, rightly, feel unsafe. After weeks of social distancing, how are we going to ask young people to sit in desks 50cm away from each other? How will we manage the dinner queues? The playground? The corridors? If we don’t address these issues we will create cognitive dissonance, disobedience and stress.

Stress is our response to a threat so we need to make schools covid safe by observing distance and hyper-cleanliness. If we don’t, the psychological research shows we will only deepen stress and trauma and increase mental distress all of which prevent learning as our brains are in flight, flight or freeze. Furthermore, we need to make schools emotionally safe. Some children and staff will be bereaved. Some will have been abused. Some will have gone hungry. Some will have seen domestic violence. Kubler-Ross's model of anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, denial will be part of the emotional temperature for most in the school. 

Gabor Mate’s work on childhood stress shows clearly that young people pick stress up from their parents and their environment and that this not only causes them mental stress, but changes their brain structure and function permanently. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conclusively shows that the more adverse experiences experienced in childhood the poorer the outcomes for adult life are.


Maslow said we all need belonging and this is supported by attachment theory, Human Givens research and Vygotsky. We learn and heal from trauma and stress socially, with people we feel safe with.

When my children return to school, when I return to work, the first thing we will all want to do is connect with each other. To tell our stories, to share our losses, to seek support, to see who we are now. We need to create spaces in schools to tell these stories and to validate them. Some schools have a counsellor, but this has to be a cultural shift for everyone. Smaller classes, fewer teachers per child in secondary school, a mixture of contact and online learning might be some ways we could ease students back safely and rebuild their sense of connectedness whilst supporting their emotional needs.


Viktor Frankl wrote that humans need to make meaning of their experiences, so the curriculum has to make space for this. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s work with trauma clearly shows the benefit of movement, voice and bodywork as a way to process suffering.  The long, side-lined creative subjects are historically how humans have made sense of their worlds, from cave paintings to hymns, from dance to pottery and poetry. We need to give students time to create and recreate their experiences to rebuild their self-esteem.


Carl Rogers argued that in order to self-actualise we need empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. Students have for so long been funnelled into exams and schools know how this adversely affected mental health.  

Now is our time to ask questions about values and meaning; to redesign the curriculum around what really matters when faced with life, illness, poverty and death. We can no longer tell students GCSEs and A levels are everything, when they have seen this year, that they are clearly not.

Schools like the United World Colleges, The Green School, The Blue School, Brockwood Park, and initiatives like The World Peace Game have been hovering on the fringes of education and might now be moved more to centre stage. It was over a decade ago that Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently argued that we need a new paradigm, and now is our chance. As Brene Brown says, we need to dare greatly, and have the courage to transform what schools mean.

 Looking for more resources to support your teaching and learning? Check out the best education technology resources on our sister platform EdTech Impact.

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