Maggie Dent is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and host of the ABC podcast, Parental As Anything. This edited version of her article has been reproduced with permission from

Given that this virus will continue to impact families, communities, workplaces, shopping centres and public transport for quite some time, schools will be the bridge between families and the outside world.

Our children spend around 30 hours a week during school term in school communities away from their parents. How schools navigate these uncertain months ahead will be so important for the whole school community, and it will be a huge determining factor as to how children cope long term. 

The impact of disruption and trauma

Many students returning to the classroom after a period of isolation will have depleted energy, as their amygdala keeps being on guard, and there will be a stronger need for proximity to where they feel safest until they find or restore their previous sense of security.

This disruption has been going on for quite a while now so the neural pathways that were once present around school familiarity, will have weakened. Not lost completely, but as the brain theory goes, “what fires together, wires together”. Neuroplasticity can create new pathways in the time students have been away – some helpful and some not.

Epigenetics has explored how trauma can pass from generation to generation on the genomes of the DNA. This science has also found that serious trauma changes the brain. In normal healthy children who have experienced no trauma, and who have had a good night’s sleep in a safe environment, the brain is able to function at its best.

Firstly, it processes all of the experiences that have happened during the day, it shifts learning and information from short-term memory to long-term memory and it creates new learning spaces for the next day.

With children who have experienced significant trauma, the brain instead focuses all of its energy on survival, rather than growing, thriving and getting smart. Even up to 12 to 18 months after a traumatic event, children’s brains can reduce the number of spaces for new learning. This means that children can struggle to learn at the same level as before the trauma, and their capacity for cognitive attention in the classroom can also be weakened.

It may be unfair for children who are just returning back to mainstream classrooms after a time that has been incredibly scary for them – where our streets were empty, numbers of predicted deaths skyrocketed, jobs were lost, shops were closed, people panicked about toilet paper, rice and pasta – to expect them to learn as before. For sensitive children, this sense of panic could have some long-term impacts on their brains.

It would be fabulous to go gently with expectations on what and how much our children can learn in our classrooms. They will be returning home more exhausted, or emotionally depleted, until they feel safe in the world again.

When schools prioritise connection, calmness and cohesion they can seriously improve student wellbeing, especially mentally and emotionally. The sooner students feel safe in a predictable environment, with positive relationships with their teachers and staff, their brains can begin to function more calmly so they can learn more effectively.


Our most exceptional teachers know that good teaching and learning begins with relationships. Relationships fulfill our most fundamental need as humans – social connectedness. Until that need is met, the nervous system will be in a state of hypervigilance because, without a sense of belonging, the primitive brain perceives a threat to our survival.

Given that the vast majority of our children have been in isolation with the safest grown-ups they know, they will be returning to school a little bit wary on some level. Home has been the hero for much of the last year. For school to feel equally safe will take time, even for the most confident of our kids.

Rebuilding familiar routines and rituals within classrooms is important. Prioritising activities that use play and lightness and fun, will ensure that students begin to reconnect with not only their teacher but also other students. Psychologists call this ‘relational safety’. The more connected students feel, the safer they feel and the more energy they have to contribute to the learning process.

Stressed brains simply cannot learn well. Some of this will be anxiety and for some children who are living with family stress, the behaviour can sometimes become challenging. This can be a cry for help. These children are not bad or naughty, they are struggling to cope. 

Classrooms that use playful opportunities and even creative pursuits amongst the curriculum are doing such important work. 


Other than connectedness, calmness needs to be a priority. Mindfulness opportunities can also really help all children, especially those who are struggling, every single day, to feel safer in their little bodies.

When we are stressed, we are much more likely to be reactive in our responses – to be angrier, use a louder voice, and look for ways to reduce the tension or cortisol in the brain, such as by drinking coffee, eating lots of chocolate and high-fat high-sugar foods, or secretly wanting to run away and hide!

When schools bring calmness into the curriculum, everyone wins. I have done a whole series of very short videos called Maggie Soothers that teach simple ways to calm down our nervous systems, for both big people and little people. 

We cannot leave to chance the high levels of stress students are experiencing, in a world that is still uncertain and continually changing. 


The words “we are all in this together” could not be truer than in a school community. From the cleaners, gardeners, admin staff, teaching staff and leadership team, the parent body, right through to every student who attends, there is a fundamental need to feel that one belongs. When there is a strong sense of belonging, there is a strong sense of cohesion. The social connections that can exist in a cohesive school community can provide everyone with the emotional support, material help, and information they need to thrive.

Communication with families around the ways and means that schools are taking care of their students’ wellbeing can also be really helpful, hopeful and reassuring for worried parents. This is where schools can create a supportive buffer between families and the still potentially scary world. When students feel a sense of belonging, and safety in an environment that is meeting their wellbeing needs, their opportunities to learn well will be enhanced.

Every child, parent and teacher is navigating this journey differently. Some have thrived learning in isolation, while others found it really difficult. Let’s be honest, everyone has been doing the best they can. Now is the time to gather together in communities to support our schools, especially as we take each day as best we can.

With a focus on connection, calmness, and cohesion, whole school communities can play an incredibly important role in the recovery from this trauma because we are working with whole children who need us to have hearts that care.