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Back to School- Excited or Nervous? How to help your children transition back to school effectively

During the last 18 months, our children and teenagers have missed over 250 days of school in Victoria from the restrictions and lockdowns we have experienced due to the Covid 19 Pandemic. We know that during the pandemic, children and teens’ mental and emotional health and wellbeing has been severely impacted. Levels of stress, disengagement, lack of motivation, mood swings and inability to focus have risen.

Yet, finally a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and our children are able to return to school, reconnect with their classmates and pick up where they left off.

Or are they?

Obviously, there is likely to be tons of excitement and joy, particularly about catching with their friends, peers and teachers. And yet for some children and teens, transitioning back to school can make them feel scared, worried, reluctant and overwhelmed. It can also trigger some deep seated insecurities and anxieties.

While for some children and teens, readjusting back to school will be largely pleasurable and a relief from the boredom of being at home, for others, home has been a place of refuge, and where they have felt safe. Constant negative promotion of the fear of catching Covid19 can also make children feel afraid of returning to school and encountering the physical closeness of others.

After such as long absence some valid concerns and fears they may have include:

  • Will my friends still like me, and want to hang out with me?

  • Will I fit into the larger class group, given it’s been a while?

  • Will my ‘place’ in the class be the same, particularly if home-schooling has been difficult for me academically.

  • Will I be able to catch up academically if I’ve fallen behind in subjects?

  • Will I still enjoy the same things about school that I did before?

  • Will I be able to cope with the structure and order of the school environment compared to the freedoms I’ve had at home?

  • How will I manage wearing a mask all day?

As parents and carers, it’s natural to want to be positive and excited for our children and teens, and to support them to make their return to school an easy and enjoyable transition. Some key things you can do to help.

1. Listen and don’t patronise.

Rather than assuming they are as excited as you are, (home-schooling parents, I hear you!), ask them how they are feeling about returning to school. While it may be natural to want to reassure them about any concerns they might have, avoid minimising their concerns, and make sure you validate any negative feelings, “ It’s okay to feel a bit scared” Listening without judging or immediately offering solutions is really important to help children feel supported, particularly given them an opportunity to come up with their own solutions. “So what might help you feel more comfortable about going back to school?”

2. Prepare and Plan

Help them to prepare by mirroring a normal school day (particularly for younger children).

Getting children to go to bed and get up the time they would normally when going to school is a good way to trigger their brains back into ‘school’ mode. Having them wear their uniform and use a prepared lunchbox during home-schooling days also helps them to get back into the normal routine of school breaks and meals. Discuss activities and rest time after school, allowing for normal chores to stay included. Try to create a calm, happy and stress free environment when they come home from school.

3. Manage expectations

Once the novelty of being back at school has worn off, (it may only last a day), don’t be surprised if your child’s enthusiasm wanes. Whatever they previously found challenging or didn’t particularly enjoy about school will still be there. Given their recent lack of practice in dealing with conflict in the playground, or long days of concentration, and the structured school experience, their resilience may not be as strong as it was previously. Remind them of their ability to cope with challenging situations (give examples) and how proud you are of them being able to do so.

4. Slowly add in after school activities

While it may be exciting to be able to resume all the after school activities that your children have missed out on, a long day of school will initially be very tiring. Add to that several after school commitments, and you might be surprised when your children are overwhelmed and exhausted. Make sure you don’t overcrowd them with additional commitments and activities, but allow them to ease in gradually. It might be helpful to ask them about their favourite after school activity and just include that for the first week back at school, before you gradually ease in additional ones.

It’s important to remember that children and teens have been out of school for a long time now, and that an effective transition back will vary for each child. Some will quickly bounce back into their usual school routine, while others may take a lot longer to readjust. Obviously the more you are aware of any potential issues beforehand, the easier it will be for you to support them to make their ‘back to school’ experience a positive one.

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