THEY are putting feelings first to ensure children thrive at school in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.

Teachers in Scotland will encourage pupils to get in touch with their emotions when they return to classrooms following a period that, for many, has been traumatic.

It comes amid a fast-growing debate around the type of environment best suited to helping youngsters settle back in and make progress after months of disruption.

Ministers have set a target for reopening schools full-time on August 11, although this depends on the Covid-19 infection rate staying low.

A final decision on whether to proceed with the plans will be announced on July 30.

Some education figures have argued the current priority should be clear boundaries and behaviour policies as a way of creating a calm, structured learning environment. However, a more emotion-centred focus is in evidence north of the Border.

While warning against seeing the issue in binary terms, Ruth McKay, headteacher at Portobello High in Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s biggest schools, is following an approach that she acknowledges will be viewed as “towards the relationships end of the spectrum”.

Ms McKay said a personalised welcome for each pupil at the start of class – which could range from a simple hello to a namaste greeting – was among measures she hopes will boost emotional connections between teachers and children.

“Some of our young people will have been going through very challenging circumstances over the last few months, dealing with issues such as domestic abuse, substance abuse or financial hardship – our staff have been delivering food parcels throughout lockdown,” she said.

“We know others have felt overwhelmed or isolated. So we’re anticipating a need for increased additional support for young people as we return to school and our staff will be prepared for that.

“If a young person is presenting in a distressed way – we wouldn’t talk about bad behaviour or challenging behaviour – the first question we as staff will ask ourselves is, what has been going on for that young person? And the next one is, how can we support them?”

Ms McKay said a key focus in the coming weeks and months would be strengthening teacher-pupil bonds.

“One of the things that we already ask all staff in the school to do is meet and greet young people when they arrive for lessons during the course of the school day,” she said.

“Rather than the class filing in and sitting down, chatting while they wait for the others to arrive, the teacher is on the door and will greet each young person as they enter. They might ask how that young person is doing, or say ‘glad to see you back’, or ‘I loved your essay’. It’s a way of creating microinteractions, of giving teachers a split-second sense about how a pupil is doing.

“What we will be doing when we return is continuing to find ways to create those little interactions. Of course, in the case of the personalised greeting at the start of class, it won’t [because of Covid] be a handshake but it could be simply saying hello, or a namaste greeting – the teachers and young people will find ways of doing that.

“[In terms of space to address emotions], we run a range of groups and programmes and it’s a topic that’s explored in Personal and Social Education, or assemblies, which might run virtually to start with, when we’ll talk to young people about the emotions that they might be feeling as we re-engage after lockdown.”

Portobello High’s approach has echoes elsewhere in Scotland, with St Bride’s Primary in Cambuslang making emotional-regulation sessions available to all children, staff and parents.

Plans have also been put together to ensure every secondary in Scotland has access to a mental heath counsellor.

Writing for TES, developmental psychologist Suzanne Zeedyk describes such initiatives as practical examples of how schools could create “space for talking about feelings” and enable children to “be in touch with, and to manage, their emotions”.

She contrasts this with the views of Tom Bennett, an adviser to the Department for Education at Westminster, who argues that clear expectations and policies on behaviour will be crucial as campuses reopen in the age of Covid.

“Good behaviour is the core mission for every school, whatever age or stage,” he wrote in a recent online article.

“Get behaviour right and everything else is possible.” Mr Bennett said students “must be explicitly told the consequences for behaviour that threatens distancing measures, respiratory or tactile hygiene, are very serious indeed”, and added that “malicious, deliberate acts of transmission (eg spitting, coughing)” should be “treated with the greatest seriousness”.

Amy Forrester, director of pastoral care in Cockermouth School in Cumbria, has a similar view.

“There is talk of ‘recovery curricula’, ‘emotional wellbeing days’ and ‘significant pastoral time’ as part of the reopening provision,” she wrote in an article for TES.

“While this is well-intentioned, I passionately believe that focusing on wellbeing interventions is, at best, misguided and, at worst, dangerous. What children need most after a time of significant disruption to their lives is normality. Pastoral leaders, more than most, know the importance of routine, boundaries and normality following a period of challenge in a young person’s life.”

For Ms McKay, discipline and maintaining a Covid-secure school environment are, of course, vital – but so are feelings and relationships.

“The approach that we have built up at Portobello High would generally be seen as more towards the relationships end of the spectrum,” she said.

“That’s not to say we do not have high expectations of our pupils, it’s about how we go about realising those.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Deputy First Minister has been clear that in planning for the return to school, children and young people’s wellbeing should be at the centre of considerations. Education authorities and schools already have a wide range of approaches and strategies in place to support pupils’ wellbeing and we are committed to strengthening the resources available for that purpose. That includes investing in access to a counsellor in every secondary school and developing new mental health training for school staff.”