Going back to school is likely to be an anxious time for children and parents. Whilst some parents and children have maintained their usual routines of going to work and school, most children have not been in school. Going back will mean once again getting used to social interaction, being away from parents and learning in a classroom.
Here with some top tips to help parents - and children - navigate this latest period of adjustment are Dr Fiona Flinn - a child, adolescent and educational psychologist based in Belfast, and Rachel Vora - a school counsellor, psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
So, how can you help your child adjust to the school routine again, with as little stress as possible?
Talk to your child
“Encourage your child to have conversations about the return to school.” - Rachel Vora, school counsellor
Dr Fiona Flinn says: “With little ones... make three jars of small, medium and big worries and talk through them. You might also have a designated worry time scheduled into their day, to get it off their chest. Then once worry time once is up, we let go of it. Then they’re starting to learn how to control their anxiety rather than the anxiety controlling them.”
Rachel adds: “Children that find it difficult to talk may want to write it down, do a ‘walk and talk’ or use colours, animals or numbers to ‘rate’ how they feel. For example, ‘If ten is excited and one is not excited at all, what number do you feel about returning to school?’”
Listen to your children
Rachel reminds us: “Actively listen to their response, without interrupting or trying to offer a solution. If children feel listened to, they’re more likely to voice how they are feeling.”
Fiona adds: “There’s a tendency in adults to cheer them up, but don’t jump to that and dismiss their concerns. By accepting and validating how they’re feeling, an empathetic response can help regulate a young child. They feel heard and understood.”
Work collaboratively with your child to find a solution
Rachel says: “You are helping them to feel more in control.
“After acknowledging any negative emotions, encourage your child to practice thinking positively. For example, ‘What are three positive thoughts about returning to school? What are you most grateful for at the moment?’ And remind them of their resilience and give examples of when they have overcome challenges.”
Plan and prepare with them
Rachel suggests: “Setting mini tasks in the days leading up to school. For example:
Packing their school bag
Going to bed and waking up at the same time as a school day
Planning what they will eat for breakfast, their packed lunch, etc
Getting their uniform ready
Speaking to friends prior to returning to school
Arranging what time to get the school bus
Driving the school route.”
Fiona says: “Tell them how you’ll walk them to the gate, give them a hug and put a treat in their bag. Make a routine with the kids and practise it. Make sure it’s fun and about connection and positivity.
“And in the days leading up to the return to school, get outside and get active. This will activate and energise their bodies, which might be flooded with stress hormones.”
Help them deal with separation anxiety
Fiona says: “Transitional objects can be a useful tool for younger children - like bringing something with them that belongs to mum or dad. Or draw a heart on your hand and theirs and say, ‘that’s our hug heart - when I press that I’m sending you a hug’”.
Rachel continues: “Prepare for your child to be emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the first week. Therefore, if possible, try to delay starting after school activities or breakfast clubs to make the days more manageable.
“If your child is particularly anxious about their return, inform the school’s pastoral team. Establish a ‘link person’ that your child feels comfortable to seek out if they are struggling during the day. You could also request a ‘Time Out’ card for your child in class to give them an option to have a breather if they are feeling overwhelmed.”