As if the new school year wasn’t filled with enough worry and stress, this year has a global pandemic thrown into the mix to heighten the stress and worry. At the time of writing this, my daughter starts school in 3 days and on a practical level, I am not ready. No new school uniform bought. Surely, she hasn’t grown that much in the 6months of lockdown, right? I can totally still have her wearing the same barely worn uniform from last term, right? Ok, ok, I know I am kidding myself; this is the child that has gone up 2 shoe sizes in 6 months. Best get shopping. Some children will be really excited about going back to school, some children will be dreading it. Most will be feeling a mixture of both feelings.
So how do we prepare our children for going back to school during a pandemic? We are gradually returning to normal, but Coronavirus hasn’t gone away. A new normal has to be created.
In my role as a child and adolescent therapist, there has been an increase in the number referrals I have received for anxiety, particularly Covid related anxiety. That’s the worrying part but the positive part is that with most Covid related anxiety, it takes short term work on shifting their perspective, aka as reframing thoughts for the child’s mental health to be improved. Only time will gauge the full impact on children and young people’s mental health and well-being, but I am positive and hopeful that our children can bounce back. In order to do this, we must build on their resilience and confidence. A significant part of my role as a Children’s counsellor is equipping parents with the tools to support their child beyond coming to see me.
The first step to preparing your child for going back to school during a pandemic is to prepare yourself. How are you doing? Really, how are you doing? I repeat for emphasis, I want you to take a moment to check in with yourself and see how you are. The past few months has been tough on most of us- emotionally, physically, mentally, financially…I could go on. We can’t simply ‘keep calm and carry on’ or ‘just keep swimming’ (did you say that last quote in your Dory voice? If you know, you know). We should take a moment, acknowledge our feelings, how often are you struggling with your feelings? Are your thoughts helpful? Do they make things feel worse or feel better? The answer you give to these questions can guide what you need to in order to keep going. Then work on what you need to keep going. You can’t pour from an empty cup. So, look after yourself firstly for you, come up with an achievable plan for your self care. Then you can support your children through whatever challenges they may be facing.
Now for the more practical tips:
Allow space and time to talk in a meaningful way. This means giving them the information they need to prepare mentally in advance. E.G “You are going back to school soon and school is going to be a bit different, there will be new rules” Often we talk at children, with our own agenda and plan for the conversation. However, preparing them for back to school will involve talking with them. Give them the information they need then take a back seat in the conversation, take your lead from them, respond to what they bring up. With big conversations like this, I suggest having them little and often to allow them to digest what you talk about, go away and think about and come back to you with any questions or thoughts.
Have a visual representation of back to school. This could be a picture of school, a calendar countdown, a visual schedule of the back to school routine or ask them to draw or create a piece of artwork about how they feel about back to school. A creative artwork about how they feel about back to school is a really good way for children to explore and process their feelings and you will literally see what going back to school means to them. Have this visual representation up where they can see it daily.
Begin practising the school routine 3-5 days before back to school. If you are anything like me, bedtime has been lax during lockdown and summer holidays. The familiar school routine will mentally prepare you all for back to school. Sleep is important for improving well-being, we underestimate the impact it can have on us when we are not getting the right amount of sleep we need. This is more so for children; their mood is significantly affected.
Plan a coping strategy with your child for when they are feeling anxious or worried when they are away from you and at school. This could be a breathing exercise, get them to practise slow breathing such as this breathing exercise. Or a visualisation exercise where they picture their happy place. A common back to school strategy is drawing a heart on your palm and on their palm and tell them when they are feeling upset at school, if they press the heart, you feel it on the heart on your palm and you are sending them a hug. The trick with coping strategies working is one, involving the children as much as possible. Ask them what they think will work. Think about a time that they have coped well, can you replicate that. It’s also important you practice the coping strategy often, so it becomes a habit.
Allow space for a debrief when they come home from school. This should be done in a relaxed way, not firing lots of questions at them but showing a curiosity about their day and letting them know that you are available to hear or help them problem solve anything that came up. Creating an environment when children feel able to come to you with their worries, particularly early allows you ‘catch things’ before they escalate.
Actively seek the positive even when things feel bleak and worrying. Often people struggle with uncertainty and there are a lot of unknowns during this period. However, there will be some positives, something reassuring. Help your child write a list of the positives, even if there are only 2 things on that list. Remind them often of the positives. A sentence framework I often use is “A virus came and it meant (insert what it meant ) but at least there is (insert positive thing)” This is introducing children to have an attitude of gratitude, this will contribute to building their resilience.
Hope you have found these suggestions useful. Children can be resilient and positive in the face of adversity and challenges when we facilitate the right environment for this to happen and equip them with tools to improve their well-being.