The global pandemic that struck in the last twelve months has had a massive influence on a number of things, and the future of schooling has looked as uncertain as the rest of life. But in just a few weeks, most children in the UK will be returning to their classrooms en masse, and there will be a vast range of emotions that come as a result of this. It’s normal for children to find going back to school difficult – so add to that the challenges of the world we now live in, and you may have a perfect storm.
As parents, many of us will be struggling to manage our own feelings, and may not feel properly equipped to help our children. So if that’s your situation, here are a few principles that might help:
Try to think through what their concerns might be and what things might they be worried about, so you aren’t caught off guard. Some children will have vulnerable family members that they are concerned about, and others may feel they won’t be able to keep up with the workload. Anticipating these concerns means that we can prepare to support our children when they express their worries to us.
Choose a good time to check in with them
Try to ask gentle open questions in an everyday unpressurised context – while playing a game, if you are out for a walk or perhaps at meal times.
Take time to listen to what their concerns really are. One mum realised her son was getting anxious about returning to school, and discovered that it was because he was worried about catching the virus from his friends. She was able to remind him that the school had put lots of safety measures in place and that if he kept washing his hands, he would be doing everything he could to stay well.
Try to ‘listen’ for their feelings. Even if we think they’re worrying about something insignificant, acknowledging how they feel will make them feel better than a dismissive “Don’t worry.’ Try saying something like “I know it’s hard” – this will make them feel valued and understood. Reassuring them that being anxious or worried is a normal response to an abnormal situation lets them know that they aren’t alone in how they feel.
These are challenging times for us as parents as well as for our children. It’s hard, but as far as possible let’s not pass on our own stress to our children. They take their cue from us. Remind them of the good things about going back to school – they can see their teachers and friends, and they can carry on learning new things. Our attitude can make a big difference to how they feel. Whilst we often think they aren’t listening to us, in reality they don’t miss a thing.
Stay in touch with the school
Find out how they are managing the challenges. Will masks or other protective clothing need to be worn? How will the classroom be arranged? What are the arrangements for lunch time? What other things will be different? If we find out these things first, we can eliminate surprise and help our children manage the situation. This isn’t about bombarding their phone lines, but be sure to check for updated information regularly via the school website, Twitter feeds and any other channels they provide.
Keep routines consistent
Maintaining as far as possible the regularity of familiar routines – meals, homework and fun will help give a framework and a stability to their day. Where routines have slipped, it may be helpful to introduce small changes in the week before school – bedtimes and wake up times that are 15 mins earlier than usual, for example.
If your child is feeling anxious, mental health nurse Emma Selby recommends taking a moment to “check in with your child.’ One practical way to do this is to create a worry box (as parents we might feel we want one as well!)
Decorate a shoe box and cut a slit in the top. Encourage your child to write down or draw their worry, talk about it, and then put it in the worry box – out of sight and out of mind.
Handling difficult behaviour around back-to-school
School will likely look very different to how it was in March of this year, with the potential for one-way systems, masks, and no sharing of stationary. This may make your child feel unsettled and result in temporary sullen, tearful, and/or argumentative behaviour at home. Offer to chat with your child about what’s bothering them, or take ‘dragon breaths’ together – one big breath in and then out to exhale tension and stress. (This may help you too!)
Social skills are like a muscle – they will grow or decline based on frequency of use. Children who have not been in large social groups much since March will likely have some anxiety – whether they verbalise it or not – about reconnecting with peer groups at school. Extroverted children may be so excited to be back that they overwhelm others with their enthusiasm, while shy and introverted children may be panicky and miss the safe space of the home environment. Try to make some time before school starts to chat this through with your child, preparing them for the most likely social scenarios for them and encouraging them that they will be able to make new friends even if they are starting a new school.
Whilst we can try to find positive ways to help our children to express their feelings, a hug or a cuddle may be all that’s needed to provide reassurance. Whatever their school situation and whatever their concerns, when they look back on this time in the future, what will matter most is that they knew we were there for them.