Supporting your child’s return to school
Going back to school after the Covid-19 lockdown is an experience none of us have had to go through before. But with the government expecting all primary schools to fully reopen in September, many of us are now planning our children’s return with some trepidation.
‘While some children may be eager to return to their old routine, others may need help to adjust, so it’s a good idea to start planning how to support your child and make it as stress-free as possible, says Caroline Yolland, school counsellor at The Beacon School, an independent school for boys aged four to 13 in Amersham.
So how can we tackle this new step in our children’s education? We asked Caroline for her top tips.
Tell your child what’s planned
As soon as your child’s school has confirmed its plans – and assuming you’ve decided to send them back at all, rather than continuing with home education – tell them that they’re returning to school as soon as you can.
Find a quiet time with no distractions, and explain calmly, without any bias from your own opinions and feelings, that it’s now considered safe to go back to school. The evidence on which the government is basing its decisions is that the risk of children becoming ill with coronavirus is far smaller than benefits of being back in school.
Create a ‘countdown calendar’
If your child has any worries about going back to school, a visual calendar or timetable can help to ease their anxiety.
Preparing your child like this will provide a sense of predictability and security, and counteract any feelings of uncertainty and disruption they may have experienced as a result of lockdown.
If you have more than one child, you may need to make one calendar for each, especially if they’re returning at different times: for example, some secondary schools are bringing new Year 7 pupils in a couple of days earlier than the rest of the school to gradually familiarise them with the new environment and routines.
Talk to your child about their feelings
It’s natural for your child to feel sad, worried, cross or overexcited about going back to school and reconnecting with their classmates and teacher, and this could affect their behaviour, for example with tears or angry outbursts.
If your child is struggling with big feelings, try to stay calm and name their emotions out loud so they know you’re listening: for example, ‘I can see that you’re feeling angry at the moment.’
Learning to be an active listener without imposing any judgements or trying to ‘fix’ the problem is a real skill, and will be hugely beneficial to your child both now and into the future.
Prepare your child for the ‘new normal’
For most children, the school day will look rather different from what they’re used to, with social distancing measures and other changes to school life in place.
To help reduce the shock factor, try to find out in advance if there will be changes to the school routine, the classroom layout, or daily routines; their school should be happy to provide this information. They may even be able to give you photos or videos to show your child how the school will look.
Schools will have a lot of flexibility in how they make the environment as Covid-safe as possible, but new measures for your child to get used to may include:
- Being in a 'bubble' of pupils – probably their own class or year group - with each bubble being kept separate from others, as far as possible.
- A different classroom set-up, with desks facing the front.
- Being dropped and picked up from the school gate instead of the playground.
- Starting and finishing school at different times.
- Eating lunch in their classroom, which may mean that no hot lunches are on offer.
- No whole-school assemblies.
- One-way systems around school.
- Designated areas of the playground for each bubble, with minimal crossover.
- A bigger focus on regular hand-washing and hand-sanitising.
Talk about these changes, and explain what to expect. It’s important to recognise that it might feel strange and different, and take some time to adjust to. The Children's Commissioner has created a free, downloadable Going back to school guide for kids to explain the changes they might see in the classroom and offer tips on how to cope if they’re feeling worried.
Keep talking about the changes after the return has begun to discover if they’re causing your child any anxiety.
Prepare them for PPE
Although face coverings and other PPE aren't mandatory or even recommended, some staff members may choose to wear masks and gloves at school, and this could be unsettling for some children.
By now, your child is likely to be used to seeing people wearing face coverings, but it's still important to talk to them openly and honestly about why some teachers might be wearing them at school, and answer any questions they may have.
You may like to also discuss with your child why they don't need to wear PPE at school themselves, even though over-11s have to wear masks in other enclosed spaces, explaining all the increased health and safety steps the school will have outlined to you.
Ask for a catch-up call for your child…
If your child is very anxious, ask their school if they could have some brief contact with their teacher, whether it’s their old one or someone different, before they go back. It could be a phone call, email, letter, online meeting or recorded video message. In many schools, at least some staff will be there for a few days before term starts and may be willing to arrange some contact.
… And for yourself
If your child has had a particularly difficult time, it may be helpful to have a catch-up call with their teacher about their experiences during lockdown so they understand their specific needs and behaviours.
This will help the teacher support your child with any issues that may have arisen during the break from school, particularly if they’ve had a difficult experience, such as a bereavement due to coronavirus.
Help your child feel in control
With school life likely to be different from what your child is used to, giving them as much control as possible over the new school routine can help them feel more grounded.
You could, for example, ask your child to choose what they’d like in their lunchbox each day, or go stationery shopping and let them decide what they'd like to buy: many schools are requesting that children have their own basic supplies so equipment doesn't have to be shared.
This can give them a sense of control and ownership over their return to school.
Scottish Government's Parent Club has a series of videos and information articles offering expert advice for parents as schools and nurseries reopen.
Top tips for being an active listener
At this time of uncertainty, it’s important to be a good listener to your child so they feel they can talk to you about their feelings. Try these steps to becoming an active listener.
- Turn devices off to show that you’re listening.
- Squat down to the same level as your child and maintain eye contact. Be aware, though, that older children and teenagers often don’t like eye contact.
- Smile and use a gentle tone of voice.
- Try to avoid impatient body language like eye rolling, foot tapping or sighing. This can discourage children from talking.
- Put your own thoughts and feelings to one side.
- Allow your child space to talk without interrupting or contradicting them.
- Don’t be afraid of silence if your child is using it to reflect and think, but step in if the silence feels uncomfortable.
- Find encouraging things to say, like ‘Tell me more,’ ‘And then?’ and ‘Go on, what else?’
Six anxiety-busters for kids
If your child is feeling unsettled about going back to school, these exercises could help to reduce their feelings of anxiety.
If one doesn’t work, just try another, and then make it a valued part of their day.
Mindfulness breathing: Focus on your breath and imagine a sailing boat that rises and falls on a wave with each breath. Alternatively, imagine your breath as a colour (breathe in blue and breathe out yellow).
Body scan: Lie on the floor in a comfortable position. Close your eyes, squeeze every muscle as tight as you can and then relax all your muscles. Think about how your body feels. Squish your toes and feet, squeeze your hands into fists and make your legs and arms as hard as stone. After a few seconds, release and relax your toes, feet, hands, legs and arms.
Heartbeat exercise: Jump up and down or do star jumps for one minute. Sit down and put your hand over your heart, then close your eyes and pay attention to your heartbeat and your breath.
One-minute breathing: Using a timer, how many breaths can you count in one minute? One breath counts as in and out.
Breathing buddies: Lie down and place a soft toy, cuddly, small pillow or cushion on your belly. Notice how it rises and falls with your breath. Pay attention to the rise and fall for a few breaths.
54321: This technique will take your child through their five senses to help remind them of the present. Take a deep breath and then notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and then take one more deep breath.