From anxiety and depression to losing a loved one, there are many issues facing the class of 2020. Parents may be eager for schools to throw open their doors, but how will children adapt to new practices? Clinical psychologist David Coleman has expert advice for parents to help their children navigate their feelings as they head back to the classroom
Six months away from school is a long time. The impact of that length of school closure is hard to guage, since both the length of, the extent of and the reasons for the closing of schools is unprecedented. Even the manner of the return to school in September for children and teenagers is not guaranteed. How the schools will operate and function is not yet clear. Uncertainty abounds.
We know that during periods of uncertainty, anxiety rises. When we don’t know what to expect we are on higher alert, more vigilant, and can’t let ourselves relax. We can anticipate, therefore, that returning to school, for many students, will be an anxiety-provoking experience, that may simply be adding to an already extended period of anxiety for them.
However, children’s emotional wellbeing, in their return to school, isn’t only going to be affected by the lack of clarity about how schools will work. The different experiences that they will have had, during the lockdown, will also potentially have a significant impact on their readiness to return to school.
For many children and teenagers, the extended school closures may have been quite a positive thing. They may have felt able to engage with online learning in the months leading up to the summer and felt safe and secure in their homes. They may, possibly, have even relished the extra time with parents and siblings who were at home more than usual.
Such a positive experience of the lockdown won’t have been universal, however. There will be a cohort of children and teenagers for whom the lockdown may have been challenging, and a further group for whom it even have been traumatic.
Some children may have been locked down in situations of abuse, violence or extreme poverty. Their time away from school, which may normally have been a beacon of light, and a source of safety, could have been highly distressing, even overwhelming.
Other children may have had less-extreme challenges, but may have faced the loss of family members, either directly from Covid-19, or during the period when marking those deaths, with funerals and public mourning may have been restricted. Parents may have lost jobs or income, resulting in a loss of stability which will have impacted their children.
Still others may have found the extended time away from school to have been socially challenging. This could have been associated with significant isolation and loneliness or the distress of online bullying and the experiences of exclusion, name-calling, public humiliation that can be part of the way youngsters can be targeted by their peers through social media.
I have written earlier in the summer about the potential educational impact on some children and teenagers of the missed time in school, and we must recognise that lost time in school will have a more negative impact on children from lower socio-economic areas, such that some might be viewing a return to school with some trepidation in terms of feeling left behind.
A further group of children may be viewing the return to school with fears about a return to bullying, exclusion and derision. School may never have been a safe place for such children and the prospect of going back, after a long and possibly relieving break away will be distressing.
What is clear from the varied experiences that children may have had is that a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing children for going back to school won’t work. As parents, and as teachers, we need to think about the individual child. If it is your child, then you will, hopefully, have a clear sense of how they have experienced lockdown. You will know if they have loved being at home and might be resistant to going back to school. You’ll know if they are itching to get back into the structure and routine of regularly seeing their friends and having a focus for their day, such that they will skip back in the door.
As with any emotionally distressing experience, we could anticipate that children who are reluctant, worried about, or even resistant to, going back to school are likely to show some signs of that emotional unease. Typically, we often see it in disrupted sleep, changes in their appetite, changes in their behaviour, more intense mood swings, significant withdrawal from family activities or more angry outbursts than usual.
We could choose to see these external signs as an early warning that something is up. Depending on how they have found lockdown, and the summer, we might then be able to work out what might be the likely reason for their upset.
This then needs to be the starting point for our conversations with them. Some parents may need to be talking to their children or teenagers about how settled and lovely it has been at home, and that we can guess they may be worried or anxious about being away from us, back at school, or worried about being potentially more exposed to the virus, or simply missing the “safety” that home represents.
Others may need to acknowledge the pressures that academic work may be putting back on the shoulders of children who have had such an extended break away and that their work habits may need time to readjust. Some may need to address other issues such as those I’ve discussed above.
Empathy and validation of your child’s experience together with your best guesses about their feelings about going back to school will be the key to helping them with whatever readjustment you anticipate they may have. We need to acknowledge that going back to school, whatever their view of it, may come with some emotional baggage.
We need to recognise and acknowledge our own emotional responses to schools reopening too. For some parents it will be a welcome relief. For others it will be a source of stress or worry, if the virus is still prevalent, or if they are aware that their child is stressed about the return. As with all things, it is important for us to be able to manage our own feelings well enough, that we can free ourselves up to respond to our children’s feelings.
If you are aware that your child, in particular, has been deeply affected by some element of the pandemic and the lockdown that went with it, then I would also encourage you to talk to their teacher in advance of the start back. Teachers, too, will recognise that all children are individuals, but may have no inkling of the particular circumstances that are distressing your son or daughter. The more understanding that you can share with the teacher, the greater context they will have to make sense of how your child is responding to being back.
I think all of us, parents and teachers, will have to accept that learning may need to take a back seat for many children in the days and weeks after schools reopen. I certainly feel that the adjustment may be significant for a lot of children and adjusting takes time.