"I'm anxious about going back to school." Tips for Staff at Junior & Senior Schools
We hear daily of the fears that many adults experience about emerging from lockdown and going back to work. Their anxieties will be mirrored in the students' feelings about going back to school.
Some students will be desperate to get back to school, to see their friends and their teachers again. Some will find it more difficult to leave the safety and security of their home where they have spent many weeks surrounded by their family.
There will also be some parents, who are worried about sending their children back to school for safety reasons. The anxiety of the parents will often transfer to their children, making them anxious, even if they themselves want to come back to school. There may also be children who are ambivalent about returning to school. They may want to come back, while being fearful at the same time. There will be yet other students for whom going back to the academic and/or social pressures associated with school life, after so many months of living in the relative safety of home, may be challenging.
It is important to note that school in September will feel very different from the place the students 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. Everyone, staff as well as students, will need time to adjust to the new rules and routines.
There are many reasons why going back to school might be stressful. Following are some tips for how teachers can help their students to be supported through their transition back to school.
Note: The words children and students are used interchangeably. Teachers refers to any member of staff SLT, HOYs, HODs, teachers, form tutors & support staff
Check your own emotional readiness; reflect on your own anxieties and ways you can cope with them:
It is always challenging to go back to work after a long holiday. This year, many of you will be going back to school after a number of months away, even if you have been working online throughout.
You have to readjust to the old ways of working, having exclusively used technology for so long. Going back to school may mean getting up earlier; and, for some of you, getting back on to public transport may cause its own anxieties. The change of rhythm, however welcome it may feel, may require an adjustment that will be more or less comfortable depending on each individual’s perspective.
You may also have fears concerning social distancing and hygiene at school, even if you know that every precaution has been taken to make you as safe as possible. This might be even more of an issue if you have had personal experience of the virus, if you have been shielding from it, if have been bereaved, if you are worried about your own children going back to school, if you already suffered from anxiety or depression: the list goes on.
Being back in school may induce a greater feeling of pressure and being under greater scrutiny than working from home, even if you have also found that stressful. Once school restarts, the work may ramp up more quickly than you feel is comfortable. The new procedures and safety routines that will have been implemented, may add to this feeling of pressure, as may practising social distancing from colleagues who may usually serve as your support system. It may feel hard to adjust to the ‘new normal’ for some staff as well as the students and this may add to the general stress of being back in school.
Such anxieties are normal and are shared by most people in these unprecedented times! However, the students need their teachers to be solid and grounded in times of uncertainty and crisis. If you reflect on and attempt to deal with your own anxieties, in advance of going back, you will be better able to be present for the students . There may not be an immediate solution to your worries but being aware of them and finding ways to deal with them, so that you don’t transfer your own anxieties to the students, is important.
Before school begins, make sure that you are confident about the new rules, procedures etc. If you are confident and positive about the new environment and systems created for you and the students , you will naturally convey this to them. You are their parents, whilst they are in school, and they take their cues for how they should feel and behave from you.
Some students may have regressed academically, since being at home. Online working does not suit everyone. There were a number of students who found working online challenging. They found it hard to concentrate and to keep motivated. These students may take time to readjust before they can work to their full capacity, so extra understanding and patience may be necessary at the beginning. It is important to discover and listen to the students’ anxieties and not ramp up the pressure too quickly at the beginning to give them – and yourselves - time to adjust.
Some students may be anxious about reconnecting with friends at school. While some students will be excited to get back to school and see their friends, others may feel that they have lost some connection with their group during lockdown. There are students who have fantasised that their friends have been leaving them out and a few may even have proof of this. Students who experience difficulties with friendships may have found being at home much easier socially. In their case, returning to the social pressures of school may feel particularly stressful.
Be open to a dialogue with the parents, if necessary. Some parents may be anxious about their children returning to school and may seek reassurance from you.
Monitor the students over time. Don’t assume that your students will be back to normal after the first couple of weeks. Pressures and anxieties can build over time. Notice any changes in behaviour in the weeks and months ahead and address these as soon as you notice them (see below for more details).
First day back:
Explain the new rules carefully and in detail. Ensure that the students are in no doubt about what they can and cannot do. Be as open and honest as possible.
Ask the students about their experiences of lockdown Give the students a chance to share what they did during lockdown and how they feel about being back – hopes and fears etc. If this is done as a class, the teachers need to be sensitive, since the students' experiences will be very different; and if some seem to have had a great time when others have not, it could cause some distress.
It is important to normalise the wide variety of feelings that students may be experiencing and to explain that all feelings are ok.It might be helpful to name some of them. Those children who are anxious about returning to school may feel that they are alone in feeling the way they do. It may be helpful to know that adults (possibly including you) will also be feeling anxious about returning to work.
It is equally important to normalise the feelings of those who do not seem to be particularly worried. They should not be made to feel more worried because some of their peers are expressing this emotion. It is important that the full range of emotions and feelings is reinforced as being acceptable.
Creative work such as writing, drawing or group exercises, might be a good way to flush out any children who may have struggled, especially the quieter ones and those whom parents have not identified as having had problems.
Have one-to-one meetings with all the students, if possible
These will not necessarily take place on the first day back; but it is helpful to devote a little time, on the first day, to any children who are presenting as particularly anxious. It is helpful for students to be able to speak about their feelings to a trusted adult, who is not their parent, so that any worries, fears about relatives, the virus, the new routines, friends etc. can be expressed. It will help you to discover any problematic issues more quickly so that they don’t build up and become a problem.
After the first day:
Find a way to reach out to the students who may need to stay at home.
Students who are not able to be in school are likely to feel even more isolated now that they know their peers are together. It is important to help them feel included and feel that their emotional needs are still being tended to, whilst they are learning from home. Think about ways to include them in lesson discussions, consider assigning a friend or two / buddy to keep them in the loop, find opportunities to celebrate their work and contribution so that they feel valued by their community and check in regularly with them to see what is working and what they are finding particularly difficult.
Accept that the students may take time to adjust to the new routines and requirements. It would be helpful to resume work slowly and continue to monitor the children’s progress. The students’ ability to be productive might vary. If a girl is focusing less than normal, it may indicate some emotional distress. It is important to continue to monitor the students’ stress levels over time, since some anxieties may not appear until later and may not be immediately obvious.
Be particularly vigilant with those students going through periods of transition:
Transitions are often stressful at the best of times. Students who found motivating
themselves difficult during lockdown, may feel as if they way behind academically,
especially if they see others have managed to remain on top of their work. Those
preparing for public exams may also be worried about possible future lockdowns and
the effect on exams and their future. It is helpful to be aware that such fears may add to
what is already a stressful time for the students.
If a student begins to act out, look for the source of the behaviour Is it anxiety based, is there something going on at home, etc.?
Be on the lookout for any changes in the students’ behaviour over time Unusual rituals (e.g. obsessive washing and sanitising of hands), new behaviours, excessive worry about family or safety, tiredness, anxiety, low mood, lack of concentration, lack of focus and motivation, withdrawal, eating issues etc. could indicate a student in distress, especially if these are unusual for the student.
* In this context, the reinforcement about washing hands and sanitising frequently could lead to OCD in a few children, so be mindful of how you convey that the need for unusually frequent hand washing is important only in the context of this specific virus.
Looking after yourself:
You may have your own anxieties about returning to school. Just like the students, you will all have experienced the last few months differently for a wide variety of reasons. Just like the students, too, some of you may be excited to get back to school and others may feel more anxious about it. Maybe you are concerned about safety, maybe you preferred the working from home, for example. If you were a key worker, you have been in school all the time; but maybe you liked having fewer students to deal with. It is important to stress that whatever you are feeling is normal and that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Finding coping strategies for your own wellbeing are important and will also help you to identify and help the children who are struggling, as you will recognise the signs.
Irritability, anger, anxiety, fear, low mood, frustration may all be experienced; and all are normal reactions to a challenging situation. Try to make sure that you have sufficient personal support and healthy ways of de-stressing. You may, unconsciously, also pick up negative emotions from others, staff, parents, children. It would be useful for you to monitor your emotions over time, so that you can learn what belongs to you and what you may be acting out on behalf of other people. Meditation and Mindfulness, Yoga and other relaxing activities would be useful.
Talking about your anxieties with others is essential for diffusing them and preventing them from building up to a point where they affect your performance and everyday life. Everyone manages stress differently and some are more vulnerable depending on multiple factors. including personality, home situation etc.
It is recommended that you maintain an honest and open dialogue with your line managers and with SLT so that they can address any issues that may concern you personally or the staff as a whole. They will listen without judgment, as they are well aware how stressful a return to school may be for some of the community, staff and students.
· The emotional wellbeing of staff is fundamental to the success of a return to school and to the wellbeing of their classes.If you have personal concerns and anxieties that you would find it hard to speak about to anyone else, a counsellor can offer a safe, non-judgmental and confidential space in which to speak about them.