As the new school term fast approaches, anxiety levels of students, parents and teachers are rising. Here are some straightforward suggestions from ‘Nip in the Bud’ on how to deal with any potential anxiety children may experience upon returning to school.
This is a very uncertain time and although it would be great if we could make Covid disappear – we can’t (well not yet)! Children, like us adults, must learn to tolerate some uncertainty. This skill can help us to manage anxiety.
It is normal to feel anxious about the ‘covid’ changes. Change makes most people feel a bit strange and worried. Some people find that it is harder than others though.
It’s important to remember that children have had hugely different experiences during lockdown. Some children who experience anxiety normally may have found a break from going to school, a break from triggers for their anxiety. For them going back to school is going to be very anxiety provoking. There are the children who have had a great time with families and don’t want to return to school. And then of course there are many children who have been in family situations with lots of arguing and possibly violence and neglect who will find getting back to school a refuge. Do not assume that you know how children feel.
You may be wondering whether to send your child back to school soon. You may have good reasons for wanting to keep them at home longer. Either way, just be aware of how you model your own anxiety when speaking to your child about returning to school. Speak to your child when you feel calm yourself.
Listening and validating
Listen to your child. Hear what their concerns are. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that you know it’s tough for them.
We don’t have all the answers
Its ok not to have all the answers. In fact, its better not to pretend you know. We don’t know. Its possible we may move back to school, then to lockdown, and back. This could go on for a while.
Limit news and address misinformation
If they are worried about getting unwell or making someone else unwell, agree to investigate some facts together. For example, you may look together at the facts in the news but limit the amount viewed and address any misinformation the child has. You may want to look at what happened in previous illnesses in the past and how we got through it as a country.
Asking questions is helpful but giving excessive reassurance is not. Its very tempting to give lots of reassurance to your child as it may relieve anxiety in the short term. In the long term it keeps going. Instead listen and ask them what they think and what they think will help.
Focus on possible strategies
Help children to focus on possible strategies. Ask them how they adapted to the lockdown. What helped? What might help them now adapt to going back to school? There may be some things that immediately can be done to problem solve the concerns raised, for example, ‘I am worried that my friends won’t speak to me at school’. Agree an experiment to try this out before hand, such as try contacting a friend to speak or meet in advance of school starting.
Children can also be encouraged to make a list of worries and have an agreed deferred time to worry about things on their list. For example, at 4pm spend 30 minutes worrying, this can help to contain worries and often the worry feels less distressing at this deferred time.
Preparing children for the return – routines, reconnecting with friends etc
Before returning to school, try and prepare children by getting them back into a routine. They will need to go to bed at a reasonable time, wake up early and learn to do the school walk / cycle / drive to school again. They could do some practice runs to school in the week or so beforehand. If they are not already doing so, help them to reconnect with friends to make transition easier. They could meet with a friend in a park or via zoom etc
Preparing children for changes
It might be helpful to prepare children ahead of school starting that the school may feel different. Classes may be smaller, they may have to wash their hands more, they may have less close contact with friends at school and stick to small groups of friends. All of this is to help keep them safe.
Encourage a growth mindset
Help children to recognise that building tolerance of uncertainty can help them manage their anxiety and develop their growth mindset. It is like building up ‘mind muscles’. Limit reassurances as this can maintain anxiety. Instead encourage children to ask questions, and support skills in problem solving so they can consider their own solutions.
Use rewards (in and out of school) to help children manage their anxiety about getting to school and managing at school. This should be age appropriate and not too expensive.
Taking care of self and others
Encourage children to think about their own mental health including eating healthily, exercising, doing things they enjoy, spending time with others. In addition, practice being kind to self and others. Remember it took us time to adapt to lockdown and it will take time to adapt back. Go easy on yourself.
By Siobhan Graham