Starting or returning to school in September is always a time filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation for both children and their parents, but after six long months of no school, childcare or after-school activities, kids will need a little extra support to prepare them for the 2020/21 academic year. Here we share a few tips to help make the transition a little easier for everyone.
Ah, September… a month filled with new beginnings, fresh stationery, and an opportunity to return our routines back to their optimum settings. For once, we actually look forward to early bedtimes. We research new ideas for lunchbox fillings and children’s wardrobes are filled with freshly-pressed clothes and pristine new shoes. We’re reminded of our own childhoods as we write with a Sharpie, names in books and on drink bottles and bags. It’s a happy time all around, just as it should be.
However, with all the running around, purchasing notebooks and pens, face masks and hand sanitiser, it’s easy to forget that this year, students will be facing greater challenges than usual when starting school. Routines are out of whack, anxieties are higher than normal, and when it comes to expectations, we’re back to the drawing board.
“Returning to school can cause anxiety for children and parents at the best of times, but none more so than in the midst of a pandemic, where children have been at home for almost six months,” says Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist, NUIG lecturer, mother of two, and author of the recently published Love In, Love Out: A compassionate approach to parenting your anxious child (HarperCollins). “Anxieties around how your child will re-adapt into school may be rife, as well as concerns over safety and the uncertainty of what school life will actually look like. Feeling anxiety during uncertain times is a natural human response for both children and parents. Having spent so much time together as a family over the past few months, many children may understandably experience anxiety at being separated from their parents, and parents may also feel worry at letting their children go from the safety and security of their homes.”
“Children may develop anxieties as the weeks’ pass, as they may find their experience quite different to what they were used to,” advises Dr Coyne. “Having spent so long with a slower pace of life, children may feel overwhelmed by the expectations of school and having to get used to new rules and regulations. Some may struggle with not having as much close contact with teachers; others with having to wear a face mask. On the other hand, there is no certainty that children will experience anxiety on return to school. What the last few months have shown us is that children are resilient and incredibly adaptable to new situations. Whilst they may struggle a bit at first, they might be okay once they get used to it.”
Now that children are returning to school, what can parents be on the lookout for to ensure their children are coping? “Normalising the feeling of anxiety really helps children, as well as talking to them about how anxiety might affect them,” says Dr Coyne. “If your child is feeling anxious about school, it might help them to know that anxiety is not a sign of anything being wrong with them or of being weak. It’s a sign that their strong, healthy brain is doing exactly what it’s meant to do to protect them from danger. It’s just that it’s gone a little overboard, which has set off a chain reaction of nasty feelings in their body and a colourful array of doom and gloom thoughts, which has made them avoid things and lose touch with things that bring them pleasure.”
“Anxiety becomes a problem when it affects a child’s sense of who they are, their relationships and their engagement with school and other activities,” Dr Coyne warns. “Anxiety becomes a problem when a child’s worries – whether their thoughts, feelings or physical sensations – are making them avoid situations, which in turn restricts their learning and enjoyment of life. If your child has been struggling with one or more of these symptoms more days than not for the past six months, it may be time to talk to your GP, who can advise you about reputable local support services: excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events or activities; worry that is hard to control; restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge; becoming easily fatigued; difficulty concentrating or mind going blank; irritability; muscle tension; sleep problems; trouble in school, in social settings, or dealing with others.”
If your child has just started in a new school, whether that’s junior infants or first year of secondary, Dr Coyne has some reassuring advice: “Just because you think your child may have difficulty transitioning into a new experience doesn’t mean they will. Because these are new experiences for them, they won’t know what junior infants or first year was like before. Children are very adaptable, so you may be surprised at how well they adjust.”
Here are just a few more things you can do to help your whole family readjust to back to school routines…