Going back to school can be daunting even when things are ‘normal’. But now, after such an extended break, children are also returning to a school life that’s going to be different, with social distancing, extra hygiene measures, and restrictions on some activities such as assemblies.
All this means it’s more important than ever for parents to do a little planning, preparation and ‘pep-talking’.
Here are some ideas on things to consider for the wellbeing of your kids and yourself.
10 Ways to prepare for going back to school in a pandemic
1. Focus on facts.
After months of being told to stay at home, to remain two metres apart from others, and now to wear masks, it can feel quite confusing and anxiety-inducing to then have to send your child back to a place that will be teeming with unmasked pupils. Who, in their own class or relevant bubble at least, will not be staying even one metre apart. It’s understandable that your protective instincts might kick in.
With this in mind, focus on the facts, not your emotional response to whether it’s safe for your child. Write down your specific concerns to reduce any overwhelm and then see what information is out there that might help allay these fears, or discuss them with school staff where possible.
A small proportion (<5%) of overall COVID-19 cases reported in the EU/EEA and the UK are among children (those aged 18 years and under). When diagnosed with COVID-19, children are much less likely to be hospitalised or have fatal outcomes than adults”.
photo by: Deleece Cook
Even if you aren’t concerned about your children’s health, you might be about them passing the virus to family members who are older or vulnerable.
Every situation like this is individual so there’s no right answer. But it might be helpful to discuss the risks and pros and cons of your child going back to school with your GP or health professional.
3. Stay positive in front of your child.
Keep your own worries about going back to school out of your child’s earshot as much as possible – offload to other adults when they are not around. Children can pick up on conversations even when they don’t appear to be listening!
4. Listen and take any fears or upset seriously.
Look out for changes in behaviour, and listen for any worries that your child might have about going back to school, Covid-19 related or otherwise.
A 2020 studypublished in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) taught parents a method to respond to a child’s anxiety symptoms in a supportive manner, conveying acceptance of the child’s distress, along with confidence in the child’s ability to cope. The result? It had as much effect on a child as if the child themselves had attended 12 sessions of CBT therapy.
Normal worry is part of life, but anxiety occurs when worry becomes a constant habit, and starts to impact negatively on your child’s day-to-day living. This could be because it is stopping them sleeping or eating, causing significant changes in behaviour, or pre-occupying their thoughts when they should be concentrating or indeed enjoying something else.
Lockdown might well have meant later nights, relaxed mornings, and more ad hoc mealtimes. But that’s not very compatible with the return of alarm clocks and school runs in the mornings! Start introducing a more ‘school-like’ routine a few days before term begins, and ideally a week in advance.
For the youngest children especially, a more gradual return to regular sleep and meal times that fit with the school day will help prevent tiredness and make the adjustment easier.
7. Talk about the ways things will be different when back to school.
Let your child know about any practical changes to their life at school, be it how they’ll get there and back, and what will happen during the day, such as physical distancing measures.
Remember to use age appropriate language. For example, ‘distancing’ won’t mean anything to a small child. And do provide lots of examples and let them know their teacher will explain, too.
8. Try to highlight what will stay the same over what will change.
Be aware that your child might not be able to do some things they previously enjoyed such as choir, assemblies or extracurricular activities. Be honest with them about this to help manage their expectations, and acknowledge their disappointment.
And try to focus on the positives, and their favourite things about school that will remain, be it seeing their friends or teacher or a particular lesson they enjoy.
9. Get younger ones reacquainted with being away from you again.
If you have a younger child who is prone to separation anxiety, and they’ve spent all or nearly all of their time with you over recent months? Where possible ease them into spending time with someone else for a few spells before they return back to school or nursery, even if, given lockdown rules, that’s just a close relative or friend they could visit for a few hours.
10. Communicate with your child’s teacher about any new developments.
Catch up with your child’s teacher or tutor about anything that might affect their behaviour, emotions or learning since they were last at school. This could be a family bereavement, a separation, or something about the pandemic itself, such as having developed a phobia related to it.