By the time schools reopen in the UK for the new academic year, many children will have been out of school for nearly six months. And many parents are worried about helping children settle back into school after such a long break. The coronavirus has had a huge impact on children’s daily lives. None of us are quite in the same place – practically or emotionally – as we were at the beginning of 2020.
Some children can’t wait to get back to school. Some children are excited about it but with a few nerves. And some children are struggling to process their emotions and thoughts after a long period dealing with the risks of a deadly virus. All of those reactions are perfectly normal. Parents also have mixed feelings about the return to school – it’s totally valid to be desperate to get the kids out of the house (so you can get some work done!) while at the same time being concerned about the impact of new rules and new systems on children’s wellbeing and safety.
Whatever your own state of mind, helping children settle back into school requires parents to be calm in our approach, reassuring with our messaging and optimistic about opportunities. Here are a few practical tips to help you put that into practice.
Reintroduce the idea of school
A few weeks before they are due to return to school, take some time to gently plant the seed. Reintroduce the idea of going back to school gently and indirectly. This will give you a good opportunity to observe your child’s reactions and see how they feel about it. For example, you could walk or cycle past the school and point out something about the building or playground. It might be as simple as how long the grass has grown. Don’t force a conversation, just see how your child reacts.
With young children, you could dig out some of their school equipment (a book bag or lunchbox) and leave these lying around near their toys. Children love novelty so, if they haven’t seen these for months, they are very likely to pick them up and incorporate them into their play. Observe their play and see what clues it gives you about any concerns they might have about school.
Model a positive attitude to change
If you are worried about the return to school, try not to transmit those worries to your child. Ask open-ended, curious questions such as “I wonder what it will be like?” Talk about the fun times they have had at school. And how you are looking forward to all the new things they will get up to next term. It will help your child settle back into school if you are positive and optimistic about the transition.
Ease them back into a school routine
After the long school holidays (plus months of homeschooling), it’s highly likely your child’s daily routine has shifted away from school hours. If children’s physical needs are being met, they are more likely to settle emotionally. So take a bit of time to move children’s bedtimes, mealtimes and wake up times back to normal in the week or so before they return to school.
It will help if you can encourage children to do some reading and pen/pencil-holding activities in the run up to school. Get them back into the habit of sitting still at a table (or on the floor) with some craft activities or by reading out loud to them. And make sure little ones get back into the habit of dressing themselves and eating and toileting independently if those skills have slipped during the summer holidays.
Explain new rules
If you’ve been given information from the school about specific changes that have been put in place to keep children safe, talk those through with your child. Reassure them that new rules are there to keep them safe. If possible, spend some time practising the new rules together. You could brainstorm ideas for socially distanced games (try these for starters) to get them thinking creatively and positively about playing with their friends. And emphasise what won’t change, too.
You might find it helpful to read some storybooks together that feature schools. Snuggling up with a story is a great way to start conversations in a safe and comforting context. With young children, you could revisit their starting school books. Or, check out Harry the Hound which has been specifically written for helping children settle back into school post-lockdown.
If your child is worried
It’s OK for them to be worried. Use your listening skills to understand their concerns and reassure them that it is natural to be worried when things change. If anxious thoughts are getting the better of them, you might want to teach them some self-soothe strategies to reduce any overwhelm (we have a free video on self-soothe strategies for anxious or emotional children that might help). Contact school in advance to let them know how your child is feeling and they may be able to put in place specific measures like a greet strategy (for managing separation anxiety).
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©Anita Cleare 2020