Back to the future: Supporting kids in their return to school

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If you’ve been reading my articles over the last few weeks, you might know that I’ve been managing all the highs and lows of lockdown by watching reruns of Die Hard while eating mountains of chocolate. Hence here I was thinking that my only anxiety around moving from level 4 to level 3 (and eventually level 2, level 1 and ‘normal’ life), would be about whether or not I would fit into my favourite pair of jeans again – ever! But, as I lay on the floor squirming and trying to do up the button the other day, I realised that, in the big picture, there was plenty more to be anxious about – including getting my teenager back to actual school (and weaning myself off the chocolate!). What would that transition look like (the transition to school, not the transition to no chocolate)? Who would find it the hardest – me, or her, or her poor teachers? Would she listen to all the new rules around hygiene and social distancing? And what about the other kids, would they listen? Would school still be a place of connection, learning and fun, or would it turn out to be just as disconnected as e-learning except this time it’s the teacher nagging her rather than me? My guess is that I’m not the only one getting in a slight state about this. So let’s look at what the transition back to school might be like for our kids and how we can support them.

The challenge of change

In general, transitions are difficult for all of us. Our brains love predictability and consistency, because it gives us a sense of security and safety. So, even though our children may have found the many weeks of lockdown somewhat monotonous and mundane, their brains have gotten used to the predictability and consistency of lockdown life and, for the most part, it’s given our children a sense of safety and security amidst a rather scary situation. But soon we’ll be asking our kids to trade the security and safety of lockdown life for the minefield that is school life. And after six weeks of sleep-ins, unlimited Peppa Pig (or Tiger King), and long family walks, not all of our kids might be keen on the trade-offs – even if it means a change of scene and hanging out with their friends again! All things considered, it would be a pretty normal and reasonable response to feel slightly tentative about going back to school. But how can we keep those normal, first day jitters from turning into a full-blown anxiety attack? Here are some things to consider:

How does your child usually respond to transitions?

While children have lots of different and unique traits, overall, most of us can tell whether our child is generally a bit more cautious and tentative or a bit more confident and assertive. And whilst both of these ‘groups’ of children could find the transition difficult, they will do so for slightly different reasons and are likely to show it in slightly different ways.

Cautious and tentative

Cautious and tentative children may already be fretting about going back to school. They may be dropping hints that they’re not looking forward to going back to school, or that they’re not even planning on going back to school at all. They may be more teary, irritable and clingy. If they’re older, you may notice them become increasingly withdrawn as they change from chatty to quiet and pensive. If you’re a parent of a cautious and tentative child, remember that this is just how your child interacts with the world. So try not to let their worries and concerns end up making you feel overly worried and concerned – they will quickly pick up on that and it will make them even more cautious and tentative! Instead, be a calming influence as you talk to them and listen to their fears. Show them empathy and compassion and let them know that you understand how they feel. This article about Pause, Hold, Engage can support you to do that.

After empathy and compassion comes problem-solving or, in this case, planning. Help your child to make up scripts and plans around what to do when they feel worried or afraid about going to school. They could also do this for those specific situations at school that are worrying them. What these plans will look like will depend on the situation but remember that it’s all about letting your child know that you have full confidence that they will be okay and that they have the tools and strategies to cope with the demands of school life – whatever it will look like in this new normal!

Confident and ready to go

Unlike cautious and tentative children, confident and assertive children may be raring to go! They may be showing signs of frustration and restlessness as the time away from their friends and school seems to drag on forever. Although they may have some worries, a quick chat with you seems to alleviate any concerns. They may already be planning lunchtime get-togethers, rugby games, or after-school walks to the dairy. But although this may seem wonderful to the parent of a cautious and tentative child, parents of these children may have learned that they can also be quite impulsive and can get easily frustrated when things don’t quite go their way. And in terms of going back to school, this can be worrying. While Day One might be easy going, Day Two might be more difficult when the confident children realise that school looks quite different and that the hygiene and social distancing rules are cramping their style. All of this might lead to next-level feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Pre-empting this by gently talking about the new rules, expectations, and limitations of school post-lockdown might go some way in curbing their unrealistic ideas. But chances are that the reality won’t hit until they’re actually back at school. When they do arrive home frustrated and annoyed, empathy and compassion will be the first step. Again, Pause, Hold, Engage could be really helpful. Confident and assertive kids have a tendency to focus on the things they really want to do but are not allowed to do. So when it comes to problem-solving (after empathy and compassion of course!) help them to focus on the things that they enjoy at school and can still do there. Help them to think of creative ways to still have fun and be social without breaking the rules!

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How do you feel about sending the kids back to school?

In many ways, we as parents are just as nervous about our children going back to school as they are. Of course we worry about how they will transition from lockdown life to school life, but given the circumstances, we might also have quite different concerns. We might worry that they’ve fallen behind in their learning (if you’re as good at homeschooling as I am then this may be at the top of the list!). We may also worry about their health and whether they’ll wash their hands as they should, keep their social distance, and whether they’ll finally get the message to NOT SHARE FOOD AND DRINK BOTTLES!!!

Even though these concerns are legitimate, they can drive us to do strange things. We may find ourselves giving them hour-long daily lectures about the importance of hand washing, or we may start testing them on their times tables instead of reading them a bedtime story, or we might ask them if they’re okay about going back to school so many times a day that they start to question our sanity. And in the end we unintentionally escalate their worries and concerns rather than calm them. That is why it is so important to make sure we look after ourselves first. If we’re really worried about our children’s well-being as they transition to school and that worry is stopping us from being a calming influence for them, then we may need to engage in some self-care first (there is some information about how to do that here and here).

Remember, we’re our children’s best shot at overcoming these testing times, including their return to school under such strange circumstances. So even when our own worries and concerns get in the way of us being the calming parents we so want to be, we owe it to our children to take a breath, look after ourselves, and to try again – guilt free! There is no manual for this situation and we’re all trying our best to get through. And to practice what I preach, I’m going to ditch the jeans and reach for some more chocolate!

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