How to ease your child’s anxieties about returning to school

Cognitive behavioural therapist Stephanie Bates tells ParentFolk’s Jade Wright how parents can make their children’s transition back to school as easy as possible 

First days at school are always anxious affairs. For all the shiny new lunch boxes, oversized uniforms with years of growing room in them, and photos by the front door, many children feel apprehensive about returning to school after the long summer holidays, and especially about starting at a new one.

This September those concerns are magnified, as many pupils will have been away from school not for six weeks, but almost six months, and much of that without access to their peers or their normal daily routines.

Stephanie Bates is a cognitive behavioural therapist specialising in working with children in schools in Wirral and Cheshire, and her own practice in Hoylake, Kids dot Calm.

She says that while 2020 may have been an adventure of family closeness and lockdown fun for some children, for others it has been a stressful time coping with enormous changes.

Stephanie Bates4
Stephanie Bates is a Cognitive behavioural Specialist and runs Kids Dot Calm

“Lockdown is such a strange situation, never before experienced. We have no proven way to respond to children’s complex responses, but it is likely that many children will have a high need for support from parents and others including teachers, wider family and potentially services,” she says.

“Some children may have known people who have died during the pandemic or someone who has been ill or in hospital. Even those who haven’t may have experienced isolation from family members or friends, disrupted or strained relationships, or may have parents who have lost their jobs. This, along with the sense of a loss of freedom and ‘normality’ will leave children experiencing feelings of grief or loss, which they may respond to with sadness, anxiety, shock or anger.”

As a busy mum of two, Stephanie knows first-hand how tough it can be. She has spent her own summer home educating her girls after her work had to stop.

“When the schools closed for most pupils, there was nothing we could do,” she says. “It was very difficult, because I’d been working with a lot of the young people for a long period of time, and built relationships with them. For many who were already struggling with mental health difficulties, I knew having to stop their sessions was very hard. Now we are gradually trying to pick things up, and look at how they can prepare for a return to school, for some of them for the first time since March.”

Many children have reported feeling anxious and isolated, particularly with the loss of support that school provides. 

“Children may feel that they can no longer rely on any of the safe and predictable things that they could before, such as school, routine and even adults, as they struggle to understand why their trusted adults have been unable to keep them safe,” says Stephanie. “They may struggle with anxieties and uncertainty about the future.”

These worries can manifest themselves emotionally and in children’s behaviour, but also physically.

“We are hearing of headaches, tummy aches and feeling sick, as well as problems with sleeping or concentration and loss of appetite,” Stephanie says. 

“An individual child’s ability to cope may also vary from day to day. Their ability to focus and concentrate is likely to be reduced as they have been away from the learning environment for such a long period. Many children will not be able to jump straight back into learning, and will need time to readjust.”

Similarly, parents’ anxieties about the spread of the virus will be passed on to their children, and as schools have to change their ways of working, many children may begin to develop obsessive habits, washing their hands too much or becoming wary of people they don’t know.

“Some behaviours, such as hand washing, might be positive lessons, but a lot of it goes against the things we’ve taught them since being tiny – things like sharing toys, hugging someone who feels sad or helping other children up if they fall in the playground. Suddenly we are expecting a whole new set of behaviours, and that’s hard for anyone to cope with,” says Stephanie.

There are big changes ahead – with staggered starting times, changes to lunch routines, staying in the same ‘bubble’ and changes in classrooms.

“The usual end of term transition preparation will not have taken place for many children,” says Stephanie. “This will be especially challenging for year 6s who are making the transition to secondary school. Reduced contact with peers, and increased use of social media during lockdown may have resulted in friendship and bullying issues.   

“Many children will have felt happy and safe during lockdown – with more time to spend with parents and siblings – but others will have found it difficult, and even traumatic, and it’s about how we support them through that.

“Think about how they have been at the beginning of each new term, maybe with some ups and downs in behaviour and mood. Offer support and comfort, and if your child continues to find it difficult to settle, reach out to their school so that they are aware of your child’s challenges and can work with you to support them.”

What can parents do to help?

  • Talk to your child about how they are feeling. Reassure them that it is totally normal for them to feel a mix of emotions and that everyone else is likely to be feeling the same.
  • Take their concerns seriously. Life for children is hard with academic and social pressures, even before adding the stress of the past few months.
  • If you have more than one child, listen to them individually as they may be experiencing different emotions and have different worries.
  • Talk openly and give your child as much information as possible in an age-appropriate way about how school may be different when they return.
  • Try to gradually get them back into a ‘normal’ school routine by encouraging earlier bedtimes and getting up times as the return date gets closer.
  • Encourage them to think about all the positive things that they are looking forward to and develop a sense of excitement for the future, rather than dwell on the negatives and worry about the changes. 
  • Once they go back, continue to offer reassurance. Explain the ways that they can help to keep themselves and others safe and reassure them that school will also be putting things into place.
  • Don’t put pressure on your child or yourself to settle into a new routine, or get on top of school work immediately. It will take time for everyone to adjust.
  • Keep talking. Ask questions and encourage open lines of communication so that they feel that they can talk to you openly and honestly.

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