Kids are heading back to school, after spending most of 2021 – bar one day – being homeschooled.
While parents might be breathing a collective sigh of relief, kids might hear the news with mixed emotions – younger children have taken a long time to settle into this new routine, while older children now have Covid testing to contend with alongside the social and educational challenges of returning to class.
It’s a lot for someone of any age to take in, so we asked two child psychologists what parents can do to help.
How are children feeling right now?
The first step in supporting a child of any age is not to make assumptions about how they might be feeling, says Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division for Educational and Child Psychology.
“Children’s views and children’s voices have been entirely absent from any government discussion and I think that actually, what they’re doing is seeing children as this homogenous group, and they’re not,” he tells HuffPost UK. “All children have different needs and are different.”
There’s an approach called ‘emotional coaching’ in educational psychology, which encourages adults to imagine ourselves in a similar scenario in order to understand how children might be feeling. In this instance, it might be as simple as thinking about how you’d feel going back to work after a long absence.
This might bring up feelings of anxiety, relief, excitement, nerves about the unknown, or a mixture of emotions.
Children may be eager to see their friends, or they may be worried those friendship dynamics might have changed, says child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer. Some pupils may also be anxious about what is expected of them “especially with the new testing processes and the social distancing”.
Children of any age can struggle to articulate how they’re feeling, but changes of behaviour may best he best indicator that they’re apprehensive about the news. “Children being unusually clingy, picking at their food and not sleeping are all signs that there’s something going on for them,” says Dr Gummer of younger kids. “If it’s school-related, they may clam up when you mention it, or could even try and hide their lunch box or school uniform.”
How can you encourage children to open up?
The number one thing adults can do to encourage open conversation is something educational psychologists call ‘wondering aloud’, says Dr O’Hare.
This involves saying a phrase such as: “I’m wondering if you’re feeling a bit nervous or excited about going back to school?”
“Labelling their feelings and just putting it out there can be so powerful,” explains Dr O’Hare, “because a child might say ‘yes, that’s exactly how I’m feeling’, or it gives them a chance to say ‘no, I’m actually really sad because we played loads of games and I’m going to miss you.’ It just opens up the conversation.”
With secondary-aged kids, it can help to given them advance warning of the conversation and what you hope to discuss, so it doesn’t feel like an unexpected interrogation. This doesn’t need to be too formal, you can say something like: “Later this week, maybe Friday, we could have a chat about going back to school and how you’re feeling about it?”
Open questions are key – “Are you looking forward to going back to school?” is a yes or no question. “Give them time to get their thoughts together and chat to their friends about it,” says Dr O’Hare.
Peers are important for older children, so it can be a nice idea to open up the conversation by “externalising” thoughts in this way. “What does Kayleigh think about it? What does Ahmed think about it, because hasn’t his mum been shielding?” can work where a direct question doesn’t. “Talking about stuff ‘out there’ can sometimes be easier than ‘in here’,” Dr O’Hare adds.
How can you help to prepare kids practically ?
Encouraging “self-management skills” such as getting themselves dressed and going to the toilet independently will help younger children prepare for the transition to the classroom, says Dr Gummer. “Role playing a school day with your child can really help too,” she adds.
Giving a child visual reminders about school can also help ease uncertainty. You can do this by looking at the school’s website together, or sharing resources the teacher has sent home.
“Many schools have been sending home images of ‘here’s the new door we’ll be coming in’ and ‘here’s what the classroom looks like now,’” says Dr O’Hare. “This isn’t happening in a vacuum, schools are doing what they do best – responding to the needs of their communities.”
It can also help to chat to younger children about their memories of school. Ask them where they line up in the morning, who they stand next to or what colour spot they stand on.
“All of those details will make it feel real, rather than this uncertain mystery that’s happening,” says Dr O’Hare. “If children don’t have a really clear sense, they can sometimes fill the blanks with their imagination, and their imagination probably makes things worse than they’re going to be.”
This latter point is also relevant for secondary aged pupils. Try to be truthful with them about new elements of school, such as the testing programme, even if you admit you don’t know all the answers yet.
“Talk to them about the challenges they’ve faced during lock down and help them prepare for a shift in friendship dynamics when everyone is back in the same place again,” adds Dr Gummer.
Reminding children – whatever their age – that you’re there for them if they think of anything else is also going to make them feel reassured and supported.