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Reducing return to school anxiety

By Huw Lloyd

We’ve all had that Sunday night dread, the feeling of anxiety about going back to school after a weekend or school holiday, that knot in the pit of our stomach and we are the adults, now imagine how it must feel for the children in our schools. For some it may be a hundred times worse, factor in hormones, friendships, pressure to achieve in whatever exams or tests they are taking that year and you have a melting pot of emotions which make returning to school after any break a treacherous experience for young people.

Now throw into the mix Covid-19, how will that affect the Sunday night dread feeling for children whether they returned on June the 1st or have to wait until September, or maybe sometime in between. What can we do as parents, teachers and most importantly human beings in this time of high anxiety to help our children return to school in the most settled and effective way for them learn and feel safe and secure in their surroundings.

I have seen lots of schools release plans on how they are planning on gently integrating pupils back into their schools, there is no right or wrong way to do this, there is the best way you feel for your pupils. One thing that all schools are trying to do is share as much information as possible with children and parents about returning to school, hoping that the more they know, the lower the anxiety levels when they do return.

My niece starts Year 7 in September, and despite her returning to her junior school on June 1st there has been little opportunity for transition work, however she has received a personal video from her Year 7 form tutor, welcoming her and inviting her to a virtual form group meeting. There was also a video tour of the school and welcome from all the key personnel in school, explaining bits of information that are normally done informally but are no less important. This has helped her to feel more relaxed about making the move to secondary school in September, despite not having met her key workers in person.

Changing the design

Schools have also felt it vital to explain, especially to younger pupils that the changes they are currently seeing regarding physical distancing, (I’m not keen on the term social distancing, I find it a bit of an oxymoron) and why it is important, but also that it will be relaxed when no longer required. I have also spoken to schools who have changed their curriculum design to include time for wellbeing checks and activities, encouraging reflection and discussion around the current situation and the changes it is bringing.

There will always be anxiety about new routines in school, currently it might be around washing hands, one way systems, pick up and drop off times or any other new routine which has to be implemented to increase safety in these times. It is important to make these routines relentless and teach them and explain them, don’t presume that children will know what to do or understand why they are doing something. Increasing their knowledge of these routines and the reasoning around them will help to reduce their anxiety. This is no different to what we would normally do, but sometimes in times of higher anxiety we forget what we always do and break our own routines and habits.

As parents we can also help to reduce the anxiety of our own children when returning to school, we will all have concerns about our children returning to school whenever that is, however we have a responsibility to not pass on our own anxiety to them. Assure them it is safe to return even if you have reservations, encourage them to be safe and follow all routines, but assure them by doing this it is safe.

New routines

If you do have concerns as a parent talk to the school and ask about the new routines that are going to be in place, this will hopefully put your mind at rest, but also will help you to pass on those new routines to your child ready for them to return. When there is so much change happening at school, it is really important to try and keep home life as consistent as possible, keep the routines you would normally have, this will help to keep anxiety lower at home, for both the child and for you.

We have to accept as teachers and as parents that returning to school following a long period away is going to cause anxiety in children, we cannot change that. What we can change is how we try to alleviate that anxiety. We can share information, teach routines, take time in our curriculum for well being activities and time for reflection, give children stability and consistency and assurances where can. This is going to be the biggest challenge to education in a generation, it is vital we do everything we can make the journey through this challenge for our children as smooth and anxiety free as possible.

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