Helping your children manage the return to school in September
Some of your children will be desperate to get back to school, to see their friends and their teachers again. Others might find leaving home more difficult after a protracted time at home with their families. For these children, being at home may unconsciously have felt like returning to the safety of the womb and they may feel reluctant to re-emerge into the world once again.
There will also be some parents who can’t wait to send their children back to school and others who are worried about sending them back for a variety of reasons. It is useful for parents to recognise that, since children are highly attuned to their parents’ emotions, any anxiety that you suffer as parents will transfer, at some level, to them. Wherever possible, parents should try to minimise this transfer of worry and attempt to instil confidence and security in the minds of children, even if parents themselves are not quite feeling this way.
It is important to note that returning to ‘school’ will not mean returning to the place and routines your children left in March. They will not be returning to all things familiar. Instead, there will be a variety of restrictions placed on them and tensions throughout the community may be heightened. Your child may find the new routines challenging at first, even if s/he feels excited about returning to school.
Following are some tips for how parents can help support the children through their transition back to school.
Prepare your child for returning to school:
• Your child needs to be prepared for what to expect when s/he goes back to school, as far as this is possible. School will not be the same and s/he needs to understand this, particularly any new procedures and rules around social distancing. There will be different rules, routines, lunch arrangements etc. which the school will have explained clearly to parents and which you can discuss with your child if s/he seems to be anxious.
· It is important that you allow your child to express any fears and worries s/he may have without judgment. Some children will be desperate to go back to school, some will feel ambivalent and others may be resistant depending on many factors e.g. personality, level of resilience, experience of lockdown, fear of returning to the social and academic pressure of school etc. Children who are in transition (e.g. Reception, Years1, 6 & 7, Year 9, GCSE and A level/BTEC students) may be particularly anxious about the lack of certainty that their future holds, after the disruption of this year. They may worry about future lockdowns and what that will mean for their exams. People, in general, adults as well as children, feel safe when they feel that they have control over their lives and wobble when they experience things are uncertain and out of their control. Explaining to your child that uncertainty is part of our lives even if we don’t always realise it, helping him/her to focus on the things that s/he is able to control and giving him/her relaxation strategies, will all help alleviate his/her anxiety.
It is extremely important to find out what your child is feeling about going back and validating whatever s/he feels. In this context, it would be helpful if you explain to your child that there is no right or wrong way to feel, that everyone’s reactions about going back to school may be different, that children who appear to have no anxieties at all may still have hidden ones and that all feelings are permissible and normal. If you find that your child repeatedly asks the same questions, it is a clue that s/he is anxious and needs reassurance.
·As a parent, you also need to prepare yourself emotionally for your children returning to school.
Just like your children, some of you will be delighted to get back to work outside the home and some will be more anxious or more reluctant. Again, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Everyone’s experiences will be different and equally valid. It is useful to know that if you understand your own feelings it will help you to understand and deal with those of your children.
However you may feel, it is important to realise that children are highly attuned to their parents’ feelings, whether these are expressed openly or not. While it is important not to transfer any anxieties on to them, it is equally important to be as open and honest with them as possible. If you speak to your child in a calm and grounded manner and explain to him/her that it is normal to be anxious when going back to work after a long absence (you can normalise it with the example of going back to school after the long summer holiday) and if you say that it’s no different for adults, your child will be able to manage his/her feelings more easily.
You need to be honest about any anxieties concerned with releasing your children from home after so long, especially if they are anxious about going back. As much as possible, try to find a way to deal with your own worries so that they are not transferred to them. Making sure that you keep well informed will help you to manage your own anxiety. School will have thought long and hard about the children’s safety, as well as that of the staff; so it will help if you can take a deep breath, trust the decisions school has made and hand over the responsibility for worrying about your children to the teachers while they are at school! It will free you up both to be more confident about sending them back and to get on with your own work!
When your child comes home from school after his/her first day:
• Make sure that you spend quality time with your child to talk about his/her day. In a tone, which expects a positive response, ask him/her what s/he did that day, what s/he enjoyed and how s/he found the new routines etc. Ask him/her also if there was anything, which s/he found hard and explore this gently with him/her, normalising any worries s/he has but offering reassurance to help settle his/her mind.
• Quality time every day is particularly important for those children who have been anxious about returning to school.
• Most children will adapt easily to the new routines at school, especially as they will have been well prepared in advance. Others may take a little longer to adjust, depending on their personality and family circumstances. It is also worth noting that if your child does not display distress on her first day or even week back at school, it does not mean to say that this will always be the case. Making sure that you give time for him/her to express his/her feelings each day will help you spot any issues early and prevent them from escalating.
• Be alert to behaviour changes in your child. S/he could become more worried, irritable, angry, frustrated or quieter than normal. S/he could become fussier, complain of poor sleep or nightmares, develop more obsessive routines at home (for example, washing hands more obsessively than normal). A change in behaviour should alert you to the fact that your child may be distressed or anxious. It is important for parents to remain calm and to discover what lies behind the behaviours, rather than dismiss them.
Because you have been speaking to him/her regularly and openly about his/her feelings, with gentle encouragement, your child is likely to tell you what is wrong. It is really important to validate his/her feelings, however trivial they may seem to you. To a teenager, what we feel is unimportant can be massive for him/her and s/he needs you to acknowledge his/her emotions. Listen attentively, ask open questions, empathise with your child and try to manage your own emotions. Look at the situation from all perspectives, before exploring a solution. A calm, patient, rational approach is always recommended, as is alerting school if there is an issue you cannot resolve at home with your child.
• A tip for your own responses: Anger can be a symptom of anxiety, so before you react angrily to any situation, try to work out whether anxiety may lie behind the anger so that you can choose more consciously how to respond. It would be useful if you share this also with the rest of the family so that you are all less reactive, when challenges arise!
If your child isn’t returning to school:
Parents whose children are not returning to school with their peers should be aware that they may find it more difficult to be at home, knowing that friends are getting together at school. This new reality could make these children feel even more isolated than they did when they knew everyone else was at home. This is more likely in the case where a child wants to return to school but isn’t able to because of their circumstances, but it may also be the case for children who prefer to be at home. In both cases, they are likely to feel a strong sense of missing out.
• If you have chosen to keep your children at home, is recommended that you explain why they not able to go back, in language that they can understand.
• Give your children plenty of time to ask you questions and try to be as honest as possible, without worrying them. If they understand that there are good reasons why they have to stay at home, they will accept it more easily.
• Ask your children what would make it easier for them. Is there anything you could do to help them feel better about the situation? Can you do anything to facilitate them feeling more connected to their peers from home? Show them that you understand their reasons for feeling upset and that you want to help.
• It is important for your children to know that there will be a time when they can go back to school and see their friends again; and that until then, you will do your best to help them stay in contact with their friends and help them with their work so that they doesn’t fall behind.
Most children will be excited to return to school and will not experience any issues. Even if the above advice does not apply to your children now, it is worth bearing it in mind for the future. If you are doing all the things suggested above anyway, you can feel proud and reassured about the quality of support you are giving your children.