Psychologists' tips: preparing children for return to school

Two experts offer advice as classrooms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reopen

Returning to school in a pandemic is uncharted territory and unsettling at the very least for children. Here, psychologists Bettina Hohnen and Jane Gilmour advise on how parents can help their children prepare.

If you think going back to school is OK, so will your child
Back to school usually means falling into a familiar routine, but now everything is different, from the one-way system to playground rules. If your child is nervous about returning, communicate with calm words and actions that it is safe. This will significantly increase their chances of a smooth transition. Prepare your child with information before the term starts. Primary children may need you to walk them through the new school day, though all age groups should be primed with likely changes. Reassure them that it’s OK if they forget the odd Covid regime rule, it takes time to learn anything new.

Pin down what you can predict, accept what you can’t
Consistency and structure create a sense of safety for kids. Create predictability by marking guaranteed events on a schedule or having a regular family mealtime. Maintaining kind but firm boundaries, particularly around sleep and technology, is another way of signalling predictability. The world outside might change; there may even be another lockdown so talk about that eventuality as a nuisance rather than a calamity. Use familiar contexts to explain these unfamiliar events. If there is a tummy bug going around, school rules change and the same is true for a Covid outbreak. Putting Covid into a recognisable framework means children will use existing coping strategies. Always answer their questions honestly or you risk losing their trust and the world will feel more uncertain for them, but use broad ideas for young children. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer.

Support your child to face their worries
Periods of separation can make us anxious and some children are worried about returning to school. As parents, our job is to help them tolerate anxiety and hold the bigger picture. Even young children may have overheard frightening news headlines or conversations, so model a calm, pragmatic attitude which will decrease their anxiety levels. If your child is reticent about going back, find out why. Make a worry list, in size order (it’s often a revelation as major worries for them may seem insignificant to you). Avoidance is never the answer when anxiety is in the mix. The thought of something is often more worrying than doing it, so support your child calmly, kindly and firmly back to school using a step-by-step plan. Reward achieving the first steps as these are most challenging.

Young brains learn best when they feel calm
On the other hand, top of your own worry list may be that your child has fallen behind at school. For pupils who are ready to get back to learning, parental enthusiasm is important. Others may not be ready yet and for them, too much academic pressure will backfire. We know the brain needs to feel calm before it can learn effectively, so a child’s wellbeing needs to be the priority for parents and teachers and then successful attainment will follow. Now more than ever, kindness and connection will see us through.

Friendship groups are likely to have shifted
School is as much about relationships as schoolwork, so there may be trepidation when children think about their position in class or small friendship groups. Talk about shifts in friendships as a given, this will help them adapt and be open to change, which is conducive to relationship building. At the same time, you may need to set up some scaffolding to ease socially cautious children back into things, so organise some events with classmates.

Tailor support to your child’s communication style
Some children talk and others are monosyllabic about their school day. However anxious you are to find out how it went, keep it low-key with quiet kids. Give them space after school and then talk about your day - it gives a message that you are ready to talk when they are. Other children might talk a lot about worries and need help containing them so that they don’t spiral. Persistent reassurance never works. Instead, ask them to write down (or draw) their worries and save them for regular check-ins.

Listen, reflect and (this is the hard part) sit with it
Whatever your child’s communication style, the advice is similar: listen first (it’s hard) and rephrase what they said, then they know they have been heard. This sounding board means children can figure out their thoughts and feelings. Simply listening and accepting is enormously healing.

Join in emotions, then problem solve
Expect emotions in the new term and lots of them, excitement, anxiety, sadness, possibly anger at their loss. Younger kids might need help naming emotions. Don’t be tempted to try to “fix” difficult emotions, rather come alongside them and empathise. Then, and only then, move to problem solving. If your child sobs, wanting their old school back, empathise first, we all want our old life back. Recognise this is tough but they will get through it, likely stronger and wiser. We all will.

  • Dr Bettina Hohnen and Dr Jane Gilmour are clinical psychologists at University College London and authors of The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need to Know to Unlock Your Teen’s Potential.

Bettina Hohnen and Jane Gilmour

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