Kids back at school – How is it going and what to look out for

As much as I love my children, it does feel good to have them back in school after 6 months and have just a bit more time to myself and a feeling of some ‘normality’. Of course there is still immense uncertainty and coronavirus infection rates are rising in the UK, so who knows how long they will actually stay there!  Some of the year group bubbles are huge and for my 17 year old, her bubble is made up of the entire 6th form, who could potentially all be sent home. 

In the run up to school starting, Educating Matters delivered many sessions for parents on easing the transition back to school.   Teachers and parents I have spoken to last week, actually found coming back was smoother than they anticipated and many children have settled in well.  Of course there are also children who find it extremely challenging to be back and there are vast differences in academic progress made since March, with differing family circumstances.

Bear in mind that if your child is at one of the key transition points like starting Reception, Year 7, Year 12 or University, we would reasonably expect that settling in process to take more time.  I remember it taking me at least a year to settle into secondary school, without there being a global pandemic.

It is hard to gauge the full impact that lockdown has had on children and young people’s mental health, wellbeing and education.  They will all have experienced some sense of ‘loss’.

In our transition webinars, there were four main areas that parents wanted to address:

Social

Socialising is a fundamental part of growing up and peer groups are an important source of support. Over a lengthy period of social distancing, friendships many have become strained or deteriorated. Teens may have communicated with friends over social media, whilst others will have had little contact with their peers. An extended break from school meant children may have lost that sense of belonging to the school community and connection with others. Particularly for younger children, who may not interact well over zoom, facetime or phone calls.

Getting children back into socialising and building connection will be the first priority of schools.  Students need to feel comfortable and happy, to be well placed to learn again.  If you have a younger child who is struggling to make friends or re-connect, it can be helpful to role play familiar situations.  For example, what to do in the playground if you have no one to play with.  Act out walking up to a group of children and practice what to say to them.  With older children, openly talk about strategies you use to stay connected with friends and work colleagues.  Although be careful not to put too much pressure, by asking them every day as soon as they come home from school questions like “Who did you play with?”

Emotional

Parents I speak to seem to be most concerned about their children’s emotional wellbeing.  Start by noticing your own feelings about your child’s return to school.  Mirror neurons in the brain mean we mirror the emotions of those closest to us and any emotion like fear or anxiety is infectious and will rub off on your child.

How your child may be feeling will vary on a daily, even hourly basis.  Some children will be excited and happy to see their friends and teachers again.  Others are nervous or anxious. Some children could be frustrated and annoyed: they may have enjoyed learning in the home environment and do not want to return to school. Perhaps they have become used to being with their parents and don’t want to go back to the old way. 

All behaviour is a form of communication and be aware that children’s emotions may come out through regression or changes in behaviour.  Typical examples of this are: changes to sleeping or eating habits; being quieter or more withdrawn; clingy more fidgety and restless; seeming irritable and acting out, possibly refusing to attend school; physical complaints such as an upset stomach or headaches; excessively asking questions or seeking reassurance.

The most important thing is that you show your child it is safe to share their feelings by being accepting and holding a non-judgemental attitude. Validate and normalise their feelings and experiences.  Don’t try to talk them out of how they are feeling, as this is dismissive and they won’t open up next time, if they feel you aren’t really listening.   This is a crucial time to work on your emotion coaching/ reflective listening skills and there is more guidance to be found on this topic here

At the beginning and end of the day, allow a few minutes of 121 time, just to be there and help them feel your unconditional love and acceptance.

A good tip for any age is to share your ‘rose and thorn’.  I always begin by sharing my own ‘rose’ for the day. Something I am really happy about, proud of, or grateful for.  The ‘thorn’ is perhaps something that didn’t go so well or a worry I might have.  Model this first for your child and they then share theirs.

As much as we desperately want our children to catch up academically, they will not be in a positon to learn at school if their social and emotional wellbeing is not taken care of first.  This needs to be the priority over the next few weeks and possibly months.

Educational

Most schools, irrespective of the year group, will have been conducting some form of baseline assessment to determine where the students currently are.  As a former teacher, I know that one of the greatest challenges (even in ordinary times) is managing the sometimes vast range of needs and abilities within a class.  Many parents are understandably concerned about their child’s education regressing during such an extended time away from school.  Many of us during lockdown, were unable to spend as much time as we would like supporting our children’s learning.  That includes me!!! Even though I am a teacher and in theory know what I should be doing, the reality is that running my own business during the busiest period Educating Matters has ever experienced, I didn’t have the time available that I would have liked to devote to my children’s education.

The one good thing is that this is an issue affecting children around the world, so you don’t need to feel that just your child is disadvantaged.  Not all children will feel ready to jump straight back into learning.  There will be a gradual phasing in of lessons, balancing more academic lessons with creative and vocational ones.  I have also noticed that children are a lot more tired than they used to be after a whole day at school.

It is extremely helpful once kids have settled in, to share with the school any observations you made about your children and how they learn, during their extended period at home.  If you feels it’s necessary, speak to school about reducing or eliminating homework until your child has settled back into a routine.

During lockdown I emphasised repeatedly that children have been learning so many more valuable lessons and life skills than what is within the confines of the national curriculum or exam board syllabus.  For a reminder watch this short vlog.

Logistical

We all created new routines to fit around lockdown life:  waking up later, going to bed later, increased screen time.  In fact our whole relationship with time changed and for many there was no need to be somewhere at a specific time.

It is very important to get our children back into familiar morning, bedtime and homework routines.   If this is an area you are struggling with, the trick is to involve your child, whatever their age, in creating the rules, routines and boundaries.  Discuss and agree them together, then write them down or for younger children create a visual reminder.  This provides clarity, consistency and avoids the need for constant nagging, repeating and reminding.

What other challenges or issues are you facing now that most children are back in school?  Would love to hear from you – please share your thoughts or questions.

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