Returning to school in a pandemic after months of home schooling is the challenge now facing most of our children. In this blog I have put together some suggestions for parents to help prepare their children as they go back to schools as they re-open next week.
1. Think positively
Positive thinking is contagious so if you think that going back to school is going to be fine, so will your child.
Going back to school after a break, a weekend or the long summer holiday usually means returning to a familiar routine, but after the current extensive break that children have just had many things are likely to be different; playground rules may have updated, classroom layouts and routines may have altered and there are likely to be staff changes.
Although all age groups should be alerted to likely changes younger children will need you to talk them carefully through the new school day. Reassure children that it takes time to learn anything new and so it is OK if they forget an occasional Covid routine rule.
Prepare your child for these probable changes by exploring them with your child before school reopens. Help your child by scaling their feelings on a 1 – 10 line or by using emoji’s. How are they feeling about going back? Why? What might help them feel less anxious if they do? Use the scale again when children return home from school on the first day back; did their day go better or worse that they thought? You can join in by telling your child about your day and using the scale. At the end of the week review both your child’s week and your own together.
2. Talk through what you can predict, accept what you can’t
A consistent routine and careful organization contribute to a safe environment for children. Support children by creating a daily visual timetable that shows definite events and by having regular family mealtimes. Maintaining firm boundaries for bedtimes and for access to technology, is another way of ensuring predictability.
The world outside might change; there might even be another lockdown but talk about that possibility as a nuisance rather than as a disaster. Children who have a tendency to being anxious tend to have a cognitive pattern that is called `catastrophic thinking’. This means that their thoughts quickly create the worst-case scenario. Reassure children by using familiar situations to explain unfamiliar happenings so for example, explain to children that if there is a flu bug going around the school rules change and the same is true for a Covid outbreak. Putting Covid into a recognisable framework will reassure children to use familiar, tried and tested strategies.
Always answer children’s questions truthfully or there is the risk of losing their trust. With younger children there is no reason to go into too much detail, use general ideas and its OK to say that you don’t know the answer.
3. Help your child to face their worries
Times of separation can create anxiety and many children will therefore be fearful about returning to school. As parents it is crucial that we enable children to both manage their fears and also hold in mind the bigger picture. It is inevitable that during the past few months even young children may have overheard alarming news headlines or conversations so maintaining a calm, down-to-earth attitude will help to absorb their anxiety.
If your child is worrying about returning to school, take steps to find out why. Help your child to make a worry list, in size order. According to Professor Cathy Creswell, an anxiety specialist at the University of Oxford and author of Helping Your Child with Fears and Worries (Robinson, 2019) avoidance is never the answer. This is because the thought of something is invariably more worrying than actually doing it. So support your child’s return to school calmly, kindly but also firmly using a step by step plan. Be sure to reward the first steps that your child takes as these are always the most challenging.
4. Resuming Friendships
There is little doubt that one of the main reasons many children will be looking forward to returning to school is to see their friends again. Being physically apart during the lockdown will have created an inevitable distance that may be hard to repair. For the majority of children school is more about their friendships than learning and they may be nervous about returning to school because of feelings of insecurity / nervousness about their position in friendships. This is because many of children’s basic needs are met by having friends and the world is also far less threatening when they have a trusted friend by their side. Again, reassurance, i.e. reminding your child that they have found other ways to communicate and remain friendly will help to reassure your child. Also talk to your child about how developments in friendships are inevitable. This will prepare them to be open to change which in turn will be conducive to relationship building. Children who are particularly sensitive and therefore socially cautious for whatever reason, may need particular easing back into the social environment of school and so setting up social occasions with classmates prior to their return to school can be very helpful.
5. Match support to your child’s communication style
Children have different communication styles, some children are talkative and while other children are reluctant to open up about what goes on for them in school. Give these children space and then tell them about your day, hopefully this gives children the message that you are ready to talk as and when they are. Other children talk a great deal about their worries and need help containing them so that they don’t get out of control so ask these children to keep a record of their worries using writing or drawing and use them for regular check-ins.
6. Listen to your child
Whatever your child’s communication style, the advice is similar:
- Listen to your child first,
- Reflect on what your child has said,
- Rephrase what they have said,
- Then children know for sure that that they have been heard.
This carefully structured process enables children to sort out their thoughts and their feelings. Simply listening and accepting what your child is telling you is extremely healing.
7. Acknowledge your child’s emotions and then problem solve
Expect your child to show lots of emotions as they enter the new term; excitement, anxiety, sadness, frustration and possibly regret and also anger at what they have lost. Young children will probably need help identifying these emotions. Don’t attempt to repair difficult emotions, instead empathise with your child and then progress to problem solving.
If your child wants their `old’ school back, empathise first, i.e. We all want things to be exactly how they were before the pandemic! Then acknowledge that the changes are tough for your child and offer the reassurance that they will get through it.
We will all get through it together.
Dr. Ruth MacConville
Cresswell, C., 2019, Helping Your Child with Fears and Worries, A self-help Guide for Parents, Robinson Press
With thanks to Dr Clare Rees, Headteacher, Havelock Primary School, Southall, for her generous support with this blog.