Martin Fleetwood
Achievement Partner at Teach First

How to have difficult conversations with your pupils

The world is a turbulent place right now; and many young people are left to process big issues on their own. In this post, former headteacher Martin speaks to several headteachers to explore how schools can step up, work together and help pupils make sense of it all.

Schools are constantly balancing the needs of the whole child (academic achievement and the development of their social and emotional skills), within the context of an ever-growing range of issues pupils face.

National and international events intersect with the personal lives of students in unpredictable ways: Grenfell, Black Lives Matter, Child Q, Ukraine, climate change. Navigating these incredibly sensitive issues is something that school leaders and their teams must deal with, to ensure young people can process any underlying anxiety or trauma.

This prompts the question: how do we support staff and pupils to be able to engage in these difficult discussions?

To start a dialogue as to how we best support each other in these most challenging of circumstances, I spoke to headteachers and trusts across the country (some in anonymity) and a few key points emerged.

Navigating personal tragedy

In speaking to some headteachers, my own experiences as a school leader involved in school-based tragedies came flooding back: supporting young people and families to navigate the suicide of a young and vibrant member of the school community; the sudden death of a pupil on a sports field or in a road traffic accident; young people who battle complex medical needs like cancer and face the cycle of remission - nothing in our training had ever prepared us for these tragedies. Although there were support systems within trusts or local authority support teams, we navigated these situations more intuitively than strategically.

It became apparent that even speaking about it now, it felt that we were breaking some form of taboo. Despite this, common themes did emerge: young people dealing with shock, addressing their own sense of mortality, listening, ensuring clarity of communication, as well as giving students opportunities for reflection and remembrance. It became apparent that we were all dealing with similar issues and approaches, yet up to the private discretion of each school.

We are potentially losing out on an invaluable collective resource of experience and strategies. As a school community, we need to overcome the idea that these topics are too private or personal for leaders, and work towards a new openness in sharing and discussion. Such a shift could go a long way to helping pupils now and in the future.

Navigating community-based and global issues

Meeting with leaders at various Teach First partner schools, they shared a few key strategies they are deploying to support exploring challenging issues with young people.

South Wirral High School

Simon Goodwin, Headteacher and Daryl Harrison, Personal Development Leader

  • Being adaptive and sensitive in curriculum planning and mapping is crucial. We consider topical matters and how best to present these to students who have faced traumas, and ensure that the learning is tailored to support, but still educate, students in important societal subjects.
  • External agencies are key in the 'package of support' and 'network of support’ to ensure students are provided with nurture, care, and professional guidance both within school and externally. The SWIS (onsite Social Worker in School) is a key member of the team to support and triangulate updates on individual pupils.
  • Communication, as always, is key in understanding trauma; whether this be in the communication between adults and the student who has experienced trauma (or, again, vice versa). We utilise an open-door policy to support students at any critical time, with clear programmes and provisions so students are aware of these networks in the school setting (and how they can access this externally, too).
  • Respite is essential to support students who have experienced trauma. Based on individual cases, we implement support programmes and adapt curriculum offers for students in supporting their progress in overcoming the challenge and adversity they have faced.  

South Wirral is also participating in an Attachment and Trauma project with Chester University.

Concilium Academy Trust

Kate Henderson, Trust Personal Development Leader

Schools within the trust actively reinforce its values, which enables leaders to make school a safe space for everyone to be able to have difficult conversations. This is done by:

  • Not shying away from sensitive content inside or outside the curriculum, but rather embracing it. Our duty is to educate children and develop them as people who can positively contribute to society.
  • When discussing sensitive topics in lessons, stress the importance of ground rules to students. Ensure that they are established and reinforced each and every lesson, with some example rules including: no personal comments, you can disagree, show respect and the 'use the pass' rule.
  • Encouraging curiosity – younger children are incredibly curious, and this is something that dissipates in us as we grow up. In order to navigate a world with so much uncertainty, this curiosity is a key part of maintaining a healthy mind and embracing change, whilst developing an understanding of others.
  • De-personalise – use scenarios/pictures/drama to think about how a situation might make others/characters feel e.g., if you were person x in this drama, how might you respond?
  • Acknowledging that we do not know what each and every one of us is going through, not just within our own lives, but within our families and school (including staff). 
The Reach Academy Trust Feltham
Rebecca Cramer, Executive Headteacher

We focus on supporting difficult conversations through ensuring the Trust principles, values and emotional skills of staff are consistently modelled in any difficult situation. Our key principle in working with young people and communities is ‘purpose over power.’

We are educators who create communities where we actively listen to each other respectfully and explore issue purposefully. Try and not make assumptions on what students are upset about or respond immediately to national and international crises – instead, explore with students what they are experiencing. We should give pupils opportunity to feel agency and that they can influence and change certain things; for example, our trust gives pupils opportunities to write articles on key issues for local newspapers. Citizens UK has also been a great source of support in this area.

The key lessons learnt from our trust are:

  • listening needs to be at heart of everything you do
  • do not react too quickly
  • give pupils the opportunity to feel agency
  • always relate to what being human is, through explicit conversations with pupils and staff. We all feel sad, worried angry and annoyed; how we deal with these emotions respectfully with each other is critical.

Support and resources

  • AXA Health have a variety of resources available from Dr Joshua Harwood, Child Clinical Psychologist, on some of the most common mental health conditions, aimed at supporting parents and carers with a child waiting for support. Teach First and AXA have also partnered to support the mental health of the next generation through AXA Head Coaches. This is a youth-focused mental health initiative designed to help teachers and pastoral leaders spot potential mental health issues with their pupils and signpost them to appropriate professional help. For further information, please email Anna Swain
  • From a school-based personal tragedy perspective, myself and other headteachers have found the Kooth support cards for adults and young people invaluable. They help with how to structure conversations that arise out the death of a member of a community.
  • The DfE released updated guidance on political impartiality for schools. This provides an overview on the topic and refers to a series of scenarios that schools could face.
  • Trauma-informed practice programmes, which originally were designed for pupils facing significant challenges, help staff and pupils secure a common language and framework in which explore emotions and how to self-regulate them. Similarly, Citizens UK can give schools a wider framework where young people can feel both a sense of agency, but also a connection, to frameworks that can bring about change.
  • Here are further sources of support on interrupting bias and having difficult conversations in the classroom.
  • Rob Bell, Head of Consilium Evolve, highlighted an interesting research paper on Refugee trauma which offers some strong advice for anyone with pupils under similar circumstances.

Overcoming tragedy means coming together

My conversations with headteachers and school leaders has revealed that there is a great opportunity for us to come together as a community and open this critical discussion.  As a network of leaders, we can support each other in sharing best practice which will make a significant difference in the way an individual, a group or a community navigates contentious issues and trauma


Thank yous

My thanks go to the Heads Forward Network, Rebecca Crammer, Reach Academy Trust Feltham, Simon Goodwin and Daryl Harrison, South Wirral High School, Kate Henderson, and Rob Bell at the Consilium Trust, Jenny Griffiths at Teach First and to all those headteachers that shared their personal experiences of navigating tragic circumstances within schools. 

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