Ongoing support for children returning to school
After being off school for so long, it’s only natural that many young people will be worried about returning to school. Here are some tips from our Parents Helpline team on how you can support your child to transition back to school life:
- Talk to your child about how they are feeling about going back to school. Let them know that it is completely normal to feel a mix of emotions and that every child will be in the same boat.
- Provide your child with as much information as possible about their new routine and school day. For younger children, it can be helpful for them to visualise changes - so ask your child's school if they can send pictures to make things feel more familiar.
- Reassure your child that the school are putting measures in place to keep them safe. Talk with your child about the ways they can stay safe at school e.g. washing hands
- Reestablish a routine to help ease into school life. Try to gradually get them back into their usual morning/bedtime routines as they get closer to their return date.
- Don't put pressure on yourself. Try your best to support, reassure and comfort your child, without putting pressure on yourself to make sure their homework is done or to settle back into a routine straight away.
- Think ahead. At a time like this, it can be hard to feel positive, but identifying things children can look forward to will help develop hope and a sense of excitement for the future.
- Seek support if you need it. Transitioning back to school is no easy task. You may find your child struggles to get back into school. If this is the case, reach out to your child's school so you can work together. If you are concerned about your child's mental health and you think they need professional support, speak to the school and your GP about the next best step.
- Returning to school after the lockdown (Nip in the Bud website)
- Supporting children returning to school after the lockdown factsheet [PDF]
- Tips on returning to school (YouTube)
- Coronavirus: Back to school for primary schools (BBC Teach)
- Supporting your child’s return to school (TheSchoolRun website)
- Parent Club: Advice on how to support your child returning to school with head teacher Kevin Brack (YouTube)
- The Little Elf Returns to School: turning to narrative in a pandemic (edpsy.org.uk)
More advice and support
For younger children, parents can use stories to explore feelings about going back to school. For example, the Little Elf story and other stories on Little Parachutes. There's also some useful tips on how to support a child returning to school after lockdown on the Young Minds website.
The Little Elf and the Flowers and Hope and Bravery
- Worry box and time: Have a worry box and post worries in this through the day. You can agree a deferred time to talk through their worries. This can help contain worries.
- Modelling calmness: You will probably have your own worries about your child going back to school. Try to 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.
- Focus on possible strategies: Help children to focus on possible strategies. Ask them how they changed to the lockdown. What helped? What might help them now adapt to going back to school? Try and problem-solve concerns that can be resolved now, for example, contacting a friend if your child is worried that their friends won’t speak to them at school.
- Rewards: 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.
- Uncertainty: This is a very uncertain time and we can’t make COVID disappear (not yet anyway). Children, like us adults, must learn to tolerate some uncertainty. This skill can help us to manage anxiety.
- Normalising: It is also normal to feel very anxious about the changes. Change makes most people feel a bit worried. Some people find this harder than others though.
- Limit reassurance to 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 reassurance as this can maintain anxiety. Instead encourage children to ask questions, and support skills in problem solving so they can consider their own solutions.
- Preparing children for changes: It might be helpful for parents and teachers to prepare children ahead of school starting that school may feel different (e.g. through newsletters). 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.
- 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: It’s ok to not have the answers. In fact, it’s better not to pretend that you know. We don’t know. It’s possible we may move back to school, then to lockdown, and back. This could go on for a while.
- Listening to each other: Teachers should listen to children and not assume how they feel or what they have gone through. Help children to listen to each other too so they can process the huge changes. It is important to not ignore the changes that have occurred.
- Parents preparing children for the return: Before returning to school, try and prepare children by getting them back into a routine, for example, establishing bedtime/morning routines. They could do some practice runs to school beforehand. If they are not already doing so, help them to reconnect with friends to make the transition easier. They can meet with one friend in a park or via zoom etc.
- More contact before schools reopen for teachers and families: Encourage children to share their work with school and teachers may arrange phone calls with families if possible, especially where anxieties are known. Some primary schools have mental health support teams or counsellors and it may help to run anxiety groups or transition groups for anxious children or their parents before returning to school.
- After returning to school make new routines fun where possible: In school, be clear about the new routines so that children have some sense of control. Help to make routines fun for example singing songs to washing hands
While supporting your child, it’s so important to remember to look after your own mental health and ask for help from your support network or services when needed.
The NHS website has some good advice and resources to help you look after your mental health and wellbeing.
Find a quiet time with no distractions, and explain calmly, without any bias from your own opinions and feelings, why it’s now considered safe to go back to school.
The evidence on which the government is basing its decisions is that the risk of children becoming ill with coronavirus is far smaller than benefits of being back in school.
A visual calendar or timetable
If your child has any worries about going back to school, a visual calendar or timetable can help to ease their anxiety. Preparing your child like this will provide a sense of predictability and security, and counteract any feelings of uncertainty and disruption they may have experienced while learning at home.
If you have more than one child, you may need to make one calendar for each, especially if they’re returning at different times because of different self-isolation schedules
Your child could be feeling sad, worried, cross or overexcited about going back to school and reconnecting with their classmates and teacher, and this could affect their behaviour, for example with tears or angry outbursts.
If your child is struggling with big feelings, try to stay calm and name their emotions out loud so they know you’re listening: for example, ‘I can see that you’re feeling angry at the moment.’
Learning to be an active listener without imposing any judgements or trying to ‘fix’ the problem is a real skill and will be hugely beneficial to your child both now and into the future.
At this time of uncertainty, it’s important to be a good listener to your child so they feel they can talk to you about their feelings. Try these steps to becoming an active listener.
- Turn devices off to show that you’re listening.
- Squat down to the same level as your child and maintain eye contact. Be aware, though, that older children and teenagers often don’t like eye contact.
- Smile and use a gentle tone of voice.
- Try to avoid impatient body language like eye rolling, foot tapping or sighing. This can discourage children from talking.
- Put your own thoughts and feelings to one side.
- Allow your child space to talk without interrupting or contradicting them.
- Don’t be afraid of silence if your child is using it to reflect and think, but step in if the silence feels uncomfortable.
- Find encouraging things to say, like ‘Tell me more,’ ‘And then?’ and ‘Go on, what else?
- The Children's Commissioner's free, downloadable ‘Going back to school guide’ for kids offers tips to help children cope if they’re feeling worried.
- Keep talking about the changes after they're back in the classroom to discover if they’re causing your child any anxiety.
- If your child is very anxious about returning to school after a period of home-schooling, ask their school if they could have some brief contact with their teacher before they go back. It could be a phone call, email, letter, online meeting or recorded video message.
If your child has had a particularly difficult time, it may be helpful to have a catch-up call with their teacher about their experiences, so they understand their specific needs and behaviours.
This will help the teacher support your child with any issues that may have arisen during the break from school, particularly if they’ve had a difficult experience, such as a bereavement due to coronavirus.
Giving your child as much control as possible over the new school routine can help them feel more grounded.
You could, for example, ask your child to choose what they’d like in their lunchbox each day, or go online stationery shopping and let them decide what they'd like to buy. Many schools are requesting that children have their own basic supplies so equipment doesn't have to be shared.
This can give them a sense of control and ownership over their return to school.