Transitioning Back To School
The return to school after summer can be tricky most years, but this year in particular following Lockdown, the amount of time children have missed out of school, and the changes that are happening in schools and classrooms worldwide – it feels like returning to school may feel more different than ever before.
Children and young people respond to change and adversity in a range of ways, including changes in their behaviour becoming more irritable, withdrawn or tearful, and changes in their sleep patterns, appetite, eating habits, and physicality. These changes may indicate confusion and uncertainty, and helping your child prepare for a transition such as starting school can greatly help to diffuse some of this.
It is really important as the adults in children’s lives, that we support the return (or new entry into school!) as a normal and positive transition. There are many things you can do to support your child’s return to school including preparing for school in a positive way.
I have included below some ideas that may support you to help your child transition back to school or have a good first start.
Positive ways to prepare for school:
Start talking and preparing about the start to school around 2 weeks before it is due to start. Earlier than this for young children can lead to more anticipatory anxiety.
Get into the school routine. Support your child to wake and go to bed at the times you would expect them to do so for school. Set a routine in your day around this to help them adjust to any time changes that have happened over Lockdown or summer months. It can take up to 6 days for children’s body’s to get used to new time schedules and you will be helping them adjust easier to the return of school by being consistent with this small shift.
Chat about School. Do this in general terms offering them information about school ie. What it looks like, who their teacher will be (with photos if you have them!), and their classroom name. Use the ‘transition to school workbook’ linked in my shop to help you with this!
Try not to place judgement on how your child will experience school. This can make it difficult once your child starts going to school for them to say that they did not enjoy it, they were upset or scared. Instead, focus on the activities your child will have available to them and the things they might like to do in an objective way, describing what they are without placing a value judgment on them.
Instead of: “You are going to have so much fun at school!” Try: “Look at the playground! They have monkey bars and swings”
Instead of: “Your teacher is really nice and there are going to be so many kids you will make friends with!”
Try: “Your teacher is called Mary. She showed me her art box and she has lots of pens and paints and different coloured papers too”
Prepare for the school journey. You can help bring more familiarity to returning to school (or going for the first time!) by making the journey to school several times before school starts.
An idea is to try and do it at the same time you will be taking them to school within the 2 weeks prior to attending (i.e. at 8:45am walking, cycling, by public transport or by car).
Let your child know you are going to “have a look at school” and let them look at the outside of it. Talk about what they can see including the gate, any outdoor games and pictures at the windows.
Get your child involved in school preparations
Take this as an opportunity to offer your child choices about what they would like to pack for school. This may include buying and choosing a water bottle, pencil case and rucksack.
The day before school starts get your child to pack their things and prepare them with you so they are ready to go.
If going to school is a FIRST for your child, help them practice getting their uniform on and off so that your child can cope when changing for sports. Do this as many times as feels useful to you and your child and try to practice in the mornings as a way to prepare for what they will be wearing every morning when school starts.
Finally, many children are worried about school lunches. Ask for the menu in advance and share this with your child on a visual timetable if you can.
If your child is having packed lunches, get them involved in packing them into their rucksack or lunchbox the night before going to school.
Focus on Your Child’s Strengths
Every child and young person has strengths, aspirations, hopes and dreams. Starting school (or returning after the long break of Lockdown) can feel overwhelming for children and in some, you may notice them losing some self-confidence, becoming more withdrawn and more timid to initiate socialisation with others. It is not uncommon for children and young people to have a less optimistic view of the future after events such as the global pandemic we are currently still living in. Reminding your child of their strengths can help them to take a positive view of themselves.
A good way of inviting confidence to come back is to talk to your child about their strengths and put these in writing to make them visible and a reference they can go back to.
Some questions you can ask to bring out your child's strengths include:
“What are you good at?”
“What do you enjoy doing the most?”
“What are you most pleased and proud about?”
“What are your top 5 skills?”
“What do you think mummy/daddy think you are good at?”
“What would Granny say?” (this could be a sibling, a friend etc…)
Sometimes your child will need you to help them make the connections and generalise the skills.
You can do this as a creative exercise with coloured pens and paper and draw out pictures or symbols that represent all the things your child is good at.
Planning actions and activities to help children and young people to be their best helps to bring a sense of personal control and achievement to the day- to-day life.
My Transition back to School workbook outlines headings that may be helpful to you. You can download it from my shop here.
Validate their feelings (before and after attending school)
I spoke last week about attachment and the importance of validating your child’s feelings and helping them feel Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure (read post here).
You can help them to do this by labelling their feelings, supporting them in asking the questions they need to ask, and validating whatever it is they are experiencing.
When your child feels seen and heard, they are more likely to have a sense of safety and security.
School is likely to feel different to most children, even those who have been attending for years. There are new rules and guidelines, they may be separated from their friends and they may feel nervous about suddenly seeing lots of people when the message we have been giving children is that they needed to stay ‘safe at home’ for all these months.
This is huge change and it is okay to not be okay with it!
If your child is upset and shows anxiety or talks about worries about school, protect time to sit and talk about this with them, allowing for questions and re-opening the conversation with them as frequently as feels useful.
Try to avoid offering reassurance about what their experience of school may be like. Similarly, try not to dismiss or deny their worries. Instead – open up the conversation by asking lots of questions. Encourage your child to come up with ideas too!
Instead of: "You're going to catch up on your work, it will be fine. Let’s talk about something else”
Try: "I can see you're worried about going back to school. I hear you. I know we didn’t manage to complete all the worksheets your teacher sent in. I know you are full of ideas, what do you think would help?"
If needed: Maybe we can try and complete a few more worksheets together and we can to speak to your teacher and see what she says. What do you think?”
Instead of: "There's no need to cry. You are going to have the best time at school!”
Try: "I wonder if you are scared about seeing everyone at school. It has been such a long time time since you saw some of your friends. Do you think it will be weird or awkward? Maybe you are scared of something else? I am listening. We can figure this out together"
In the scenarios above you are giving your child the opportunity to tell their story (ie. left brain logic, order, and words) associated with their previous feelings of worry and anxiety (ie. right brain emotion), while at the same time allowing them to be heard, seen, and reassured by you.
Help Your Child Regulate Their Emotions
Sometimes for there to be calmness there needs to be opportunity for movement and the expenditure of physical energy. Children and young people who seem to be particularly jumpy, anxious, nervous or on edge may find that a game that allows for running around after school helps them release physical tension and bring calm to their evening.
Similarly, some children may need support finding calm in ways that are more soothing and quiet. You may wish to protect time for re-connecting with your child and talking about feelings after school by having a “peaceful corner” in your home in the form of a den or dark room with cozy pillows where you can sit together for a cuddle and some ‘quiet time’ before dinner and bedtime routine begins. Sometimes just reading a book together in a calm and quiet space will do the trick.
For older children, you can let them decide what they need – whether it be going to the park with friends straight after school for a few minutes or spend time in their room listening to music. Take the lead from your young person about what they will find most useful and create some space for them as well as offering time with you and offering them permission to talk or just ‘be’ with you (perhaps helping out making dinner or doing one of the activities you have begun during lockdown).
Manage your own big feelings.
As adults we really do set the emotional tone for our children.
Our chaos or calm are contagious, especially to those we spend the most time with.
If you are feeling anxious, worried or obsessing about what things will be like when your child starts school, it is likely your child will pick up on this and they will not only be worried about school but also about you too! If you are able to stay informed while keeping a positive and objective focus on the things you can control, including the preparation needed to make a good start at school, this can help to tone down Anxiety for you, and for your child.
There are things you can also do to help you bring down Anxiety including doing some mindfulness, taking walks and time out in nature (for you, without children!) and talking with a friend or close family member about how your feeling.
If you feel things are worsening then please contact your GP to seek support for you. If you think that talking to me would be useful you can book in a call online. I offer 20 minutes for a quick Q&A and specific help with a question and a 1 hour session for a more in depth conversation.
My Transition back to School Workbook is now available in my shop to Download and has a useful template that you may wish to share with your child's teacher to support them in understanding your child best.