They might be anxious, fretful, or absolutely fine. Children will have contrasting feelings about the return of school, but you can help them through the first few difficult days.
This week promises to be an especially anxious time for parents as children start returning to school following the COVID lockdown. With safety and social distancing measures in place, many children will find that the school experience has changed markedly from the one they last experienced five months ago.
Parents have every right to be nervous, of course. Many of us will also be returning to offices and workplaces over the next days and weeks, which will spark fears of its own. The possible negative effects of COVID restrictions and post-lockdown life on adult mental health are well documented.
But what of our children? Will they be anxious about returning to something approaching normality in the midst of a pandemic? What might the reopening of schools mean for their own mental wellbeing?
It’s worth asking these questions because the assumption is that children have been less affected by the pandemic than adults. And while that appears to be true when it comes to the virus itself, it’s not necessarily the case in regard to mental health.
“The new school year is often a mixture of emotions, including nerves, excitement and, for many, worry,” says life skills and confidence coach Annette Du Bois, co-founder of children and teen coaching company CHAMPS Academy. “Children of all ages feel emotions to varying degrees, and especially this new term. It’s a big change from what they’ve been used to for the past six months so undoubtedly emotions will be running high.”
Young children often take on the fears of their parents. Older children may know that, even if they are unlikely to suffer serious illness from COVID-19, catching it and passing it on to more vulnerable family members is a real possibility. On the other hand, many children may have been most upset by routines turned upside down and the lack of contact with schoolmates and teachers.
With that in mind, the return to school may affect children in different ways. While some will appreciate the return of more normal life, others may regard school as one more thing to worry about.
“The new school year is often a mixture of emotions, including nerves, excitement and, for many, worry”
Age may be a factor in school anxiety
According to experts, age may be a factor in how children react to school reopening.
“It’s difficult to know for certain how children will respond to the return to school,” says Frederika Roberts, founder of Educate to Flourish CIC and a former secondary school teacher. She cites a study by Oxford University which found that older children were less affected by the closure of schools, possibly because it also freed them from stresses around self-esteem, peer group interaction, exams and bullying.
“Time will tell, but it is possible, therefore, that younger children in particular will experience a positive impact from returning to school,” she adds.
It’s certainly true that the return of school may have a positive impact on the mental health of many children, but that won’t universally be the case. “You know your child best, so the key is to listen to him or her, talk through any concerns or questions, and look out for any signs that he or she is struggling and support them,” says Frederika.
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Five ways to prepare your children for the return of school
Even for those children looking forward to the return of school, getting back to socially distanced lunchrooms and one-way corridors is likely to be a disorienting experience. For others, it could be frightening and anxiety-inducing. Here are five ways to help prepare your children for school.
1. Don’t overshare your own anxieties
Don’t bottle up your own anxieties about school reopening, but don’t talk about them in front of your children either. “Children are extremely good at picking up on their parents’ moods and anxieties, so whilst I wouldn’t advocate generally suppressing your own feelings and worries, it may be helpful not to talk about any anxiety you may be feeling yourself about their return to school in front of your children or when they may overhear you,” says Frederika.
Annette agrees: “Children will often copy or mirror the behaviour and emotions of those around them,” she says. “Panicky or stressed behaviour and negative language often triggers the same response in others, especially the young.”
2. Talk about their concerns
You won’t know if your children have concerns over school or not unless you talk to them about it. But encourage an open conversation. Don’t ask leading or loaded questions (“are you worried about…?”) and give your children space to answer in their own time and in their own way.
Annette also suggests encouraging worried children to write their fears down: “Thoughts and worries often feel worse and over-exaggerated when held in our head, causing greater stress and anxiety,” she says. “Asking children to write down their worries helps to see them as they really are. You can then support them through their turbulent emotions.”
3. Make a practical plan
If your children do have concerns, and even if they don’t, talk about what they can do to stop the spread of COVID-19. Give them a practical plan of action, and with it a renewed sense of control.
“Talking through possible scenarios rationally and discussing practical plans to reduce risk for those scenarios – for example, handwashing, face masks, avoiding close contact – may help, especially as this reminds your child that they can play a big part in reducing the risk,” says Frederika.
“If your child is concerned about social distancing and not being able to interact properly with their friends, discuss and plan ways they can still be sociable. Talk to teachers so you fully understand the new playground rules and then, with those rules in mind, discuss with your child ways they can chat and play safely.”
4. Emphasise the positives of school
For many children, going back to school will be something they’ve been looking forward to. And even for those who are less enthusiastic, emphasising the positives will give them something nice to think about, and help take their minds off gloomy scenarios.
“They will be back at school, they’ll be able to see their friends again, they will have routines again and fewer opportunities to get bored,” says Frederika. “Depending on the age of your child and school rules, they may be able to express their individuality and add an element of fun with their choice of face masks!”
When discussing school with your children, always use positive language. “Use positive, action orientated and reassuring words such as ‘do your best today’ and ‘you’re ok, you can do this’, or chat through something your child is looking forward to about the day, which they can describe in a positive way. Change your language, change the mood,” says Annette.
5. Give them credit
If your children are clearly having an issue with the return of school, that’s something you need to address. Talk it through and follow the practical suggestions above. But equally, children can be remarkably resilient. While the first few days back may seem strange and alien, most children will soon be back in the swing of school, even with all those weird new rules. Don’t worry needlessly and spread unnecessary fear to your children.
“Children are incredibly creative and resourceful, so if you set them a challenge to find new ways of doing things and explore these with them, they are likely to come up with lots of great ideas. Focusing on these practical aspects will not only allay some of their worries, but will also distract them from thinking of worst case scenarios,” says Frederika.