How to Handle Back to School Anxiety as Schools Reopen

June 11, 2020 Published by

With the roadmap out of lockdown announced and all school pupils set to return on 8th March, it’s a time when everyone may be feeling a little apprehensive.

You may have noticed that your child might be feeling worried or anxious about it. It’s common to experience back to school anxiety after a long break, however the last year in and out of lockdown has meant that children’s routines have been more disrupted than ever before.

Back-to-School-Anxiety-Good-Play-Guide-KM

What might be causing your child’s back to school anxiety? 

Families have spent a lot of time together in the last year, and particularly over the last two months while most of us have been at home. It is natural that when faced with returning to school, your child might experience separation anxiety. Although there might be a feeling of relief for the children to be returning to school, you may also have similar fears of being apart for long periods of time. It will take some time for everyone to adjust.

Your child is likely to have not seen most of their friends for a long time. They might be sad that they  can’t hug each other when reunited or maybe they’re worried about whether they’re still ‘in’ with their group of friends, particularly if some have been in contact more or less than others. 

Rumours and disagreements may also begin to fly in the playground. Discussions on the playground mirror those in the adult world and it’s likely that children have heard and understood different information about Covid-19 and the lockdown. It’s likely that they may begin to share this with one another, which may lead to more anxiety or even arguments with friends. For example. if one child says they have been ignoring the lockdown rules to visit family, another may be upset by this because they have been told this isn’t allowed. As a result, your child may come home with new questions and information that you will need to discuss with them. 

It’s possible that your child will come to you with a lot of “what if” questions and answering these as best you can, in an age appropriate way, will help to comfort them. For example, they may want to know what will happen if there is a case at their school, and you can explain that the person will be asked to self isolate as well as any body who has been in close contact with them. Or, your child may be worried that because of social distancing, a member of staff can’t help if they fall over in the playground; but you can reassure your child that they will be looked after if this happens, although the adult may be wearing gloves and a mask to help protect them. 

“If they are interested enough to ask questions, children deserve our time and our best attempt at answering them, but do it slowly and don’t give too much information at one time.”  – Dr Amanda Gummer

A good rule of thumb is to let your child lead the conversation and clarify what their question is before answering, to avoid misunderstanding and overloading them with information. 

 

What Might the New School Day Look Like as Schools Reopen?

There will be a few new rules and routines for children to get their heads around when they go back to school too. Giving your child an idea of what these may be beforehand can give them the chance to process their thoughts and feelings around them and ask any questions. The changes may vary slightly from school to school, but here is a list of some of the new rules and routines your child may come across:

  1. Arrival and attendance
  • All pupils are expected to attend school and the usual rules on attendance will apply
  • There may be staggered start and finish times (communicated by individual school)
  • Breakfast and after-school clubs can restart
  • Parents and carers may be recommended not to gather at school gates or to enter the school building without an appointment 
  • Primary school children will not need to be tested when they return to school
  • Secondary school pupils will be tested three times on site and then at home once in the first two weeks after schools reopening and then be provided with home kits for twice weekly testing from then onwards

2. School-wide

  • Year group or class group “bubbles”
  • Face coverings are recommended for staff and adult visitors where social distancing between adults is not possible e.g. when moving around corridors (primary school children are not required to wear them but it has been recommended that secondary school pupils use face masks in “all indoor environments, including classrooms”
  • One-way systems 
  • Frequent hand washing for 20 seconds
  • More frequent cleaning of rooms/equipment

3. In the classroom

  • This time, there will be no need to reduce class sizes from their usual size 
  • New classroom layouts with all desks facing forward 
  • Classroom windows and doors may be open to let in fresh air
  • Children may not be allowed to bring in their own pencil cases/stationery, instead the school may provide equipment for individual pupils that is kept in the school
  • Children may not be allowed to bring in items considered non-essentials, such as toys

4. Break times

  • Break and lunch times may be staggered or condensed by year group to accommodate the staggered school start and finish times 
  • Keeping 2m apart where possible – although expected that this may not always be possible, particularly with young children
  • Socially-distanced play, possibly only with classmates in ‘class bubbles’

 

Signs of Anxiety to Look Out For

Some levels of anxiety are to be expected during an unusual time like this. Your child might not necessarily understand that they are feeling anxious, but there are a few signs of anxiety you can look out for:

  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams
  • Not eating properly
  • Quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
  • Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
  • Feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often
  • Always crying
  • Being clingy
  • Complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell

If these symptoms don’t go away or are getting worse, you may want to speak to your GP.

Separation anxiety image

Three Tips to Handle Back to School Anxiety

To help handle anxiety as schools reopen you can use the same techniques as you usually would when your child is anxious about starting a new school, or going back to school after a long break.

1Talk to your child about their anxieties about going back to school.

Allow plenty of time and opportunities for your child to talk about his or her concerns and ask questions. Actively listen to fears or worries and acknowledge them, so your child knows that their feelings matter and you are always there to lend an ear.

Try to stay positive and calm when discussing your child’s return to school and try to avoid sharing your own anxieties with them. Your child will pick up on your emotions and this may affect how they feel themselves, so seeing you being confident and calm can help them to feel more confident themselves.

If your child comes to you with problems, rather than saying “there’s nothing to worry about”, it can be more practical to come up with some solutions together. For example, if your child is worried about not being able to hug his or her friends, what can they do instead? Can they come up with a funny alternative greeting, such as the Vulcan salute from Star Trek?

You may also want to encourage your child to talk about the things they are looking forward to, such as seeing their friends and their teacher again, or doing their favourite classes – this can help them think more positively about the experience.

You could discuss the questions that your child’s teacher and friends may ask when they go back to school, so they are prepared, rather than having to think of an answer on the spot. For example, your child might be asked what they have been doing during lockdown, how they feel about it, or whether they know anyone who has had it.

2. Help familiarise your child with the new routine.

Your child may feel more separate from their teacher and friends after being away from them for so long. Hopefully your child has been in contact with them during the school closures but if not, encourage them to connect in some way before the return to school. This could be a video call with their friendship group, or have them write a letter to their teacher. You could also tell your child that their teacher has called to say they look forward to seeing him or her again, even if it’s a white lie!

Many of us have got out of regular routines, perhaps with later bedtimes and mealtimes (and lots of snacks in between?). If possible, start to readjust your day back to the ‘school time’ routine at least a week before, moving everything by a few minutes or so each day so the new routine isn’t such a drastic change.

You could also practise the trip to and from school a few days before too, especially if it’s within walking distance. This may help your child feel more comfortable about going outside again, if they haven’t been out much during lockdown, as well as encouraging them to get back into that routine.

Continue to talk to your child about staying safe and washing hands while they are at school and how this is important as it helps everyone to stay safe.

3. Give your child tools to handle back to school anxiety.

Mindfulness techniques can be very useful for managing anxious thoughts and feelings. For example, you could teach your child Square Breathing: breathe in for a count of four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four – as long as needed to calm down. Learning methods like this means your child can cope with their emotions even when they are alone.

If your child perhaps struggles to talk about their thoughts and feelings, you can also make a worry jar or use a Worry Eater. Your child simply writes or draws his or her worry on a piece of paper and pops it into the worry jar, or the mouth of the Worry Eater to gobble up. Doing this can help your child to feel like they’ve expressed and ‘released’ their worry; and reading it later might allow you to understand where the root of their anxiety is coming from, so you can come up with ways to make it better. 

Another technique you could consider is using play therapy. Children don’t always have the words they need to describe their feelings and sometimes these can be misinterpreted by adults too. Play is a pressure-free way to explore their anxieties and means you can put words and solutions to their worries. You could ask your child to draw a picture or write a story about how their first day back at school might go; use pretend play to act out a day at school; or talk through the school day and reflect how they might be feeling at each different point in the day.

back-to-school

Summary

It is an unusual time and some anxiety is to be expected when changing the routine after a year in and out of lockdown. The tips above are ideal for use as preventative measures, even if you haven’t seen any signs of back to school anxiety yet in your child. While it may take some time for them to adjust, with your support, they will be able handle any anxieties they may have.

Talking to your child about their worries and what they can expect on their return to school, rehearsing the routine and giving them some strategies to process and communicate their emotions are all ways that you can turn this experience into a learning opportunity – and this will build their resilience for the future too.

How are you helping your child handle back to school anxiety as their school reopens? Let us know @GoodPlayGuide on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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This post was written by Kerstie Mehmel

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