‘Back to School’ - EHWB Advice for Parents

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School closure due to the pandemic has brought uncertainty and lack of structure to many families but, over time, home-schooling has become the 'new normal'. As many schools reopen, families are now faced with a new uncertainty and a need to adapt again. In recent weeks, the government has announced plans to start an 'easing' of lockdown, and while this may bring relief to many, it also presents new challenges, uncertainty and unpredictability.

This is very much on the minds of parents and their children at present, as they think ahead to this next phase and try to work out how it might affect them. So how do you navigate through the new freedoms and continued restrictions as lockdown starts to ease?

During school closure family experiences will have varied considerably and for some children returning to school may be enjoyable and even a relief, whilst for others it may feel sad, scary and confusing.

Schools have worked hard to introduce new routines and practices to keep children safe when they return to school. When adjusting to these changes in school life, it is normal for children to feel anxious and sad. Over time these feelings often ease, but there are ways families can support their children to feel more positive about being back at school again.

1. Notice the impact of your own feelings

Deciding on whether children should return to school may have been a difficult process for many families. Weighing up concerns about the safety and wellbeing of children or close relatives and work commitments is not easy and sending children back to school may understandably cause carers to feel anxious, sad or even guilty.

On the one hand, many of us have welcomed the possibility of being able to see a small number of family and friends again, albeit from a distance. The need to connect has been strongly felt during the earlier phase of lockdown, and at last there is more possibility of this.

All of this is the reality for parents, alongside managing your children's expectations and the range of possible emotions they may be experiencing - including frustration, fear and confusion. The best starting point for parents is to simply recognise that this is a situation full of challenges, many of which are unpredictable, and to accept that it will feel a little daunting at times. This is the 'new normal'.

Even if we do not discuss our feelings directly with our children, they can pick up on our emotions. In order to understand what your child might be sensing it's a good idea to stop and notice how you are feeling by talking to someone you trust, writing down your feelings, or practicing mindfulness to gain insight into your emotions.

Choose a moment when you feel calm to talk to your child about school. Be aware that they might try to copy your feelings as a way to understand the situation and how to react to it. If you want your child to feel more excited about school, try to show some excitement yourself by talking to them about the positives and what they might have missed, such as seeing their friends.

2. Manage your child's worries

In preparing for any significant change that your child will experience, be as clear and honest as possible about what they can expect. Talk with them about how things may be different. If your school has given you the information, this could include the new layout of their classroom, how break times will be organised, where they will have lunch, face masks and regular testing in secondary schools, and what will happen at the start and end of the school day. Be open if they have concerns they might be separated from their friends, and explain why things are happening in this way. Many schools are currently sharing their new approach with families, and this will support you in talking with your child.

Continue to talk openly about how their teachers are managing the easing of lockdown – and, importantly, how they are finding it. Are there new arrangements which they find particularly confusing or unsettling, and how can you support them?

Keep checking in with your children about how they are feeling about some of the potential changes ahead. In returning to school, they will have to manage a lot of change. This can make children anxious and they may need some extra support as they adjust. If they have lots of questions, keep giving them the opportunity and space to talk about these. They may be worried that they will have fallen behind in their school work, or that their friendships may have suffered. Acknowledge and normalise their concerns. Knowing you are there for them, and will listen, is really important right now.

For those who find it harder to talk openly about their worries, be sure they know you are there to talk when they are ready. Many children can be encouraged to write down, or draw, their worries. Older children may choose to speak with friends or another family member. The main thing is to encourage them to share their concerns and any ideas which might help to make a difference for them. Working to solve (or tackle) their own problems - with reassurance and support from those they trust - is another way of improving children's sense of control in all this.

Try to listen to your child and acknowledge their feelings. If they are feeling anxious about school, encourage them to write down their worries as they occur and post them in a worry box, or if they are younger you can help them to draw a picture that represents their concerns.

As parents and carers we naturally want to reassure children but too much reassurance can perpetuate worry. If your child feels very anxious, try and limit discussions around worries to once a day for 30 minutes and have a dedicated "worry time" to talk about concerns.

Problem-solving is a useful strategy to lessen worrying. Help your child to identify and describe a problem they are concerned about, such as 'my friend is in a different school bubble group and we can't be friends anymore'. Then come up with as many solutions as possible, consider the pros and cons of each, and decide which solution to try, for example: they could speak with their friend regularly by phone.

3. Embrace change as a way to grow

A growth mindset can help your child believe that they can keep on learning and changing, seeing challenges as a normal part of life and opportunities for growth. Considering the current uncertainties, including the possibility that the school routine may change again, this mindset is important to nurture in both our children and ourselves.

One of the best ways to encourage this mindset is through daily reflection on positive experiences, particularly at school. Families could think of three top things that they have enjoyed that day, and talk about this during a mealtime, or write or draw these activities in a gratitude journal together. You could encourage your child to consider what kind words or actions helped them through the day, either their own or from others, or think up a quote for the day such as 'I can do this' or 'School might feel tough before it gets easier'.

4. Build clear and fun routines

School will feel different now and your child will need to get used to new ways of doing things. Families may also need to revive essential routines that have lapsed over lockdown such as eating and sleeping at regular times and making time for exercise. It's also important to put in in place regular activities that children enjoy and make them feel good as this can support a child's positive attitude towards school.

Discuss with your child what fun routines could be introduced such as scooting or biking to school. If your child has packed lunches agree what should go in the lunch and make this together. Consider new routines after finishing school such as doing something creative, having some agreed screen time or going to the park. And if you have discovered fun and new activities during lockdown, make sure you plan for how to keep these going around school.

5. Special time and rewards

As children have got used to spending more time with their family during the school closures, they may start to miss it as they return to school. It can help to introduce special time together for a specified amount of time and at an agreed time each day for a child's chosen activity. As a family, you can also agree fun activities to plan for the weekends for children to look forward to.

To help with motivation, you could create a reward chart together that can counteract what your child finds challenging. For example, if they find school worrying, the rewards might be for going to school every day, or, if they find a change in class structure difficult, the rewards might focus on talking to new classmates. The timeframe for achieving the goal should be clear and the reward itself specific - for example stickers, a small toy, or an experience such as a movie night. Alongside this, general praise for attending school and engaging with the new routine can help your child feel positive about the experience.

These are challenging times for children, as they adapt to a different type of school environment, but by listening to how they are feeling and putting into place different ways of thinking and fun routines, we can help them to see the positives in being back at school.

6. Look after yourself

Self-care remains an important part of your ability to manage and support the emotional wellbeing of your children. If we look after ourselves, then we are in a better frame of mind to be available to our children. There's no doubt that the last few months have often been stressful, and much of the advice has been around parents making sure they make some time for themselves. The importance of this isn't going away! So, whether it's through having a bath, reading, yoga or going for a walk, continue to do what works for you. Keep this going in the weeks ahead. Make sure it remains a part of your daily routine, even when things feel like they are going back to 'normal'.

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