Returning to school after a national lockdown is uncharted territory and can be unsettling for everyone. After home and family, school is the most significant environment for children and teenagers as it offers stability, consistency and predictability, all of which are vital to young people’s emotional wellbeing. Our Fegans’ counsellors offer a few tips on how to smooth the transition from home to classroom:
Be a good role model. If you think going back to school is OK, so will your child.
Children learn from observing their parents and anxiety is very ‘catching’, if you are anxious or worried, your child will pick up on this. Back to school usually means falling into a familiar routine, but now everything is different, from the one-way system to playground rules. If your child is nervous about returning, try to communicate with calm words that it is safe. This will significantly increase their chances of a smooth transition.
Prepare your child with information before the term starts. Primary children may need you to walk them through the new school day (a visual schedule is a good idea), secondary school children can print off their timetable and check out the school website for new guidelines on what is expected.
Get into a routine.
It’s likely that your child will be out of routine after such a long time at home but we know that consistency and structure create a sense of safety for everyone. Encourage them to have a reasonable bedtime with no technology at least an hour before sleep. Maintaining kind but firm boundaries, particularly around sleep and technology, is another way of signalling predictability. Some children find relaxation meditations helpful after a busy day: the Calm and Headspace apps are good starting points.
Teenagers have a different circadian rhythm than adults, however they do need about nine hours of sleep to function well, so encourage them to get this, on weekdays at least.
Make time to listen to any worries. Pin down what you can predict, but accept what you can’t.
It is inevitable that some children will be worried about returning to school. As parents, our job is to acknowledge their anxiety whilst also helping them develop hope and a sense of excitement for the future. Talk with your child about ways they can stay safe at school, such as washing their hands before and after eating, and reassure them that the school have put measures in place to keep them safe.
Even young children may have overheard frightening news headlines or conversations, so model a calm, pragmatic attitude which will decrease their anxiety levels. If your child is reticent about going back, find out why. Make a worry list, in size order (it’s often a revelation as major worries for them may seem insignificant to you). Do not dismiss or invalidate those feelings, instead let them know that these are real and totally normal.The thought of ‘something’ is often more worrying than doing it, so support your child calmly, kindly and firmly back to school.
The world outside might change; there may even be another lockdown so talk about that eventuality as a nuisance rather than a calamity. Always answer their questions honestly or you risk losing their trust and the world will feel more uncertain for them. Help your child to stay grounded and in the moment, taking each day one step at a time, with a sense of positivity and optimism.
Young brains learn best when they feel calm.
On the other hand, top of your own worry list may be that your child has fallen behind at school. For pupils who are ready to get back to learning, parental enthusiasm is important. Others may not be ready yet and for them, too much academic pressure will backfire. We know the brain needs to feel calm before it can learn effectively, so a child’s wellbeing needs to be the priority for parents and teachers and then successful attainment will follow. Support, reassure and comfort your child, without putting pressure on yourself to make sure their homework is done. Now more than ever, kindness and patience are the key to getting through the next few months.
At the end of the school day, some children will talk and others will remain monosyllabic.
However anxious you are to find out how it went, keep it low-key with quiet kids. Give them space after school and then talk about your day – it gives a message that you are ready to talk when they are. Other children might talk a lot about worries and need help containing them so that they don’t spiral. Persistent reassurance never works. Instead, ask them to write down (or draw) their worries. Listen, reflect and sit with it.
Whatever your child’s communication style, the advice is the same: listen first (it’s hard) and rephrase what they said, then they know they have been heard. This sounding board means children can figure out their thoughts and feelings. Simply listening and accepting is enormously healing.
Children adapt to difficult situations.
Expect emotions in the new term and lots of them, excitement, anxiety, sadness, possibly anger and frustration. Younger kids might need help naming emotions. Don’t be tempted to try to “fix” difficult emotions, rather come alongside them and empathise. Tell them stories about how proud you were when they coped with difficult situations in the past, this will remind them of their resilience. Then, and only then, move to problem solving. If your child sobs, wanting their old school back, empathise first, we all want our old life back. Recognise this is tough but they will get through it, stronger and wiser.
Finally, always seek support if you need it.
You may find that your child struggles to get back into school or experiences difficulties while they’re at school.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Tense muscles and headaches
- Feeling sweaty or hot
- Breathing faster which may lead to a panic attack
- Difficulty sleeping
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Increase in crying
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Getting angry
- Being clingy
- Having negative thoughts
- Not eating properly
If this is the case, reach out to your child’s school as soon as you can so that you can make them aware of the challenges and work together to support your child.
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health and you think they need professional support, speak to the school and your GP about the best next step.
No matter how your child feels, let them know that it is completely normal to feel a mixture of emotions and that everyone will be in the same boat, however it will also help them to realise that the current situation won’t last forever and that their feelings will change.