A guide for parents to prepare their children for school

How to prepare for a return to school if you or your child are anxious?

Life has been so different for everyone this year and so full of change and continually changing rules and regulations. They haven’t seen their friends much if at all, missed out on so much. Not being able to see grandparents has had a terrible effect on both the children and the grandparents. The only constant in their life has been being with you – 24/7. But they have had you to love them, protect them, and nurture them. Now it is only natural that both you and they are feeling very nervous about the imminent return to school in the next week. Whatever the politics and science behind it all, there is no getting away from the fact that it is basically in children’s best interest to return to school. The finer details are the ones that have polarised opinion between ‘the everything must go back to normal straight away’ and the ‘it’s not safe to leave the house yet’. There are merits in both arguments. Either way, there are probably some very complex thoughts flying around in your head and theirs. There is no right or wrong scenario. We are all different and have different circumstances within our extended family and what has happened in this last six months.

So what can you do in the run-up and on then over the first days and weeks to ease your family back into school life?

There are five broad categories running within all this advice:

  • your own emotions
  • talking about feelings – both yours and theirs
  • managing expectations of what is going to happen
  • separation anxiety
  • consistency so they feel listened to

In the run-up to the return to school, starting now:

  • Try to have a positive attitude yourself – glass half full, not half empty. Focus on the good experiences that they can look forward to, rather than those that are different/wrong/bad/scary. But first of all, you need to get your own thoughts straight in your head. What is it that you are most scared about? What is causing you the most anxiety? Spend some quiet time thinking about it all in a structured way. Try writing your fears down in lists. Work through them logically and try as best as you can to take out the emotion and be logical and then try and find any positives in it that you can.

‘I am scared that the virus will go round the school and that she won’t be safe.’ – logically if any children/staff start to get ill, they will shut down the school for a deep clean and track and trace and quarantine the correct families. This may or may not include your family. Schools have had to write very clear emergency procedures of what to do in any given situation just like this one. They have spent weeks/months planning for this while you have been in lockdown and on holiday. Trust them that they have it all covered. Yes, your lives may be affected, and quarantine may be imposed on you, but thinking positively and logically this probably won’t happen, and if it does you will deal with it in the same ways as we have all had to deal with all the other twists and turns of lockdown. The chances of your child being the one that catches it and then becoming ill are still relatively small compared with that of an elderly or vulnerable person. So if you are most scared about keeping her safe and she is your priority with the positive thinking she will be ok even if Mrs Greenwood next door might not be. The people most at risk are the staff, and then everyone passing it on to elderly family members. Yes, you might also be worried about your elderly relatives, but that is a different issue and to be listed and thought through separately. Think about the good points of them returning to school. They will get to see friends again; they will start to catch back up with their education, you will be able to go back to work and see your colleagues and have a change of scene. Try hard to allow at least positive ideas to enter your consciousness, not just the scary stuff. A positive slant can be put on most things. If they are refusing to go back to school “I have prepared her for school before, and I will be able to use what worked then to help her again.” “I will need to progressively get my child back to her usual sleep cycle (or any other routines) and not expect an overnight change. This is a phase that she will eventually get over.”Now that you have had time to order your thoughts, you will be more able to talk about your feelings with others, including your child. Remember the old analogy about putting on your lifejacket or oxygen first so that you can help others? At the moment it is very apt. Your child will have gone through so many negative emotions over the last few months and will pick up your emotions now. If you are now able to be calmer and more positive, they will feel more safe and secure.

  • Remain calm in front of them as their anxiety will feed off yours if you aren’t careful. Share age-appropriate details about COVID but try not to inundate them with details that are confusing or scary unless it is necessary. Answer questions that they have but don’t over face them with too many details at any one time. Be very wary of little ears hearing things that you would wish they hadn’t.

For example, you are talking to a friend or parent about the latest twist in the return to school saga that has just been released in the media. You are sat on the sofa chatting away, tutting and moaning at something that seems absurd. Still, you don’t realise that your child isn’t in the garden anymore but has come in and is listening in the hall. A one-sided conversation can be very confusing for children who have limited understanding of something that is so hideously complicated. They may well jump to many catastrophes in their head and be too scared and anxious to speak to you afterwards about it as they could hear that you were upset or annoyed about it already when you were talking to your friend. This could very easily feed their anxiety without you even ever knowing.

  • Keep talking and sharing thoughts with your child. Negative conversations might not be good, but positive ones will help. Be open and honest. Recognise and acknowledge their emotions, worries and validate their ideas as being an ok thing to be thinking about without being judgemental. Try and ensure they feel listened to. Encourage them to name the thought that they are feeling. Useful words to use are: happy, sad, excited, frustrated, anxious, bored, scared, angry and calm and follow the emotion with …because… or give reasons. ‘I feel scared to go somewhere with so many people as we haven’t done that for ages.’ ‘I am excited to see Ellie again, but will she still want to be my friend?’ All of these feelings once named and discussed, can start to change. Don’t be surprised if they have some separation anxiety as they have been with you continuously for months, being with others and away from you will be scary. This is why it is so important to get them talking about how they feel. Also, introduce a traffic light system with their emotions. Green – feel happy and calm, orange – I feel a little bit worried or scared, and red – I feel really upset. Younger children might not be able to really express the ins and outs of what and why they are feeling the way they are, but still, be able to say ‘I feel all orangey Mummy.’
  • Discuss a series of good things that have happened since they last saw their friends to be ready to talk about when they do see them. Initially, it might be hard to think of much as our lives have been so restricted, but after a while with a bit of prompting, they should be able to come up with a few. Focus on the positives; try to remind your child about the things that she liked about school. Also, make a shortlist of nice things that you can do as a family that they can get to look forward to. After so many months with a lack of structure, it will be daunting to go back to school full time until October and Christmas. That feels like a very long time. If they know that next weekend or after two weeks you will go to the safari park or some other treat it may help. Draw pictures to try and express how they are feeling or the good things they want to remember.
A social story to explain to younger children
  • Explain any of the differences that there will be at school that the school have informed you about. If you can talk these through and also explain in age-appropriate ways why it is essential, they will be less fearful. If they have had a few days to let the differences sink in, they are less likely to be so fearful. ‘You won’t be able to play with Lilly at playtime because she isn’t in your year, even though you know her really well from ballet and used to play with her sometimes before. This won’t be forever, but it will be for at least a few weeks.’ ‘You are going to have to eat your packed lunch in your classroom, but you will still get to have lunch and some playtime afterwards.’ The more clear explanations given over an extended period, the easier they will be able to remember them and not be overwhelmed. Add in some of the whys, not just the new ‘can’t do this, can’t do that’ rules. ‘You need to eat your lunch in the classroom so that you aren’t in a very big group of different children every day; this will help stop you catching anyone’s germs and help keep you all a bit safer.’
  • Have a practice – if you have received a list of new procedures from the school factor in some practice time with your child. At home with you, they haven’t probably had to do much social distancing as you have been in your family bubble and can do and touch things normally. Getting them used to these measures before they go back will help them make the adjustments. For example, get them used to washing their hands thoroughly. Pretending to be in class and sitting 1 or 2 metres away from you on the floor or standing in a line at the right distance. Or if needed, wearing a mask.
  • Manage expectations – For those old enough to understand, take time to discuss the changes that are going to happen. They will then feel prepared, reassured, and know what to expect when the time comes. If you have been able to talk through how they are feeling, hopefully, you have gauged what they think will be happening. It is important that they aren’t under the impression that ‘we are going back to school and it’s going to be just like before, and all this is over’ the likelihood is that whilst lots will feel the same a lot will be different too and if this comes as a shock on the first day they will become distressed.

3 or more days before:

  • Several days before school starts begin to prepare actual things that your child needs for school. Wash all uniforms and involve them in hanging them up or trying them on again. Pack their school bag together.
  • Bedtime routines – after six months of being at home with very little time structure in place it is going to come as a mighty big shock to have to set the alarm and get up at a particular time. So, it is important to gradually introduce an earlier bedtime and an alarm over a period of at least a few days. Re-establish normal style routines, like only eating and doing things at particular times.

The actual night before and the first days of school:

  • Allow extra time to do things on the first few days so that being rushed doesn’t add to the stress levels. Don’t leave anything to the last minute as it is likely to take everyone more time than it used to do to get up, washed, breakfasted, dressed and actually ready to go through the door. It will take longer – so factor extra time into everything you do for the first week. Be organised as a family, where are shoes; bags etc? Don’t leave it till the last minute to try and find them. Get everything ready the night before, especially for that first day.
  • Encourage them to ask for help at school if they are upset or confused.
  • After the first day, ask them what went well and then what they are still worried about. Give them time to chat about it, again without judgement. Let them get it all out without you jumping on the conversation and shutting it down, telling them not to worry as that will probably have the reverse effect than you want it to. Try and ensure they feel listened to.
  • If at any point, your child starts to have any coronavirus symptoms do something about it quickly. Do not send them to school, then request a test for them and then follow the guidelines that they tell you at that point.

Good luck!

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