Four back to school worries and how to ease them

As most children across the UK return to primary and secondary school, it can be an anxious time for both pupils and parents.

After a disjointed year and a long summer break, many of us will be relieved at a return to the routine of the school term. But many will have concerns about our children’s missed learning, how they’ll adjust to being back in the structure of the classroom again, or whether some of their friendships will have changed.

We asked Dr Fiona Flinn, a child, adolescent and educational psychologist based in Belfast, and Rachel Vora, a school counsellor, psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy for some tips on helping you support your child through the return to school:

1. Coping with changed relationships

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Rachel Vora says: “Many children may be concerned that they’ve lost friendships, disconnected from school friends and that friendship groups may have changed.”

“Normalise these worries... Encourage your child to talk to their friends before school starts and share how they are feeling with their peers. Acknowledging that they are not alone in feeling anxious about socialising again can often lessen feelings of social isolation.”

Fiona Flinn says: “Younger kids will have possibly benefited from this time with their parents and family, depending on the home environment. However, this time is very important in developing social identity for adolescents, as they grow independent from the immediate family, and that’s been stunted over the last year.

“Look at what they can control and make a plan for that.” - Dr Fiona Flinn

“Ask them what would make them feel better. I always encourage teenagers to give someone a call rather than a text. Practise those social skills of being an attentive listener, responding in a way that shows tone of voice, etc. Suggest, ‘Could you give your friend a call and say hi? Could you ask if they want to meet at school gates and walk in together?’

2. Managing fears around more disruption

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Although this school year promises to be more 'normal', the pandemic is still with us, and for many parents there will be concerns about further school closures, children being sent home and even another stint of blended learning or home-schooling.

Rachel says: “This can be particularly challenging for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), who require consistency and forward planning in advance to help ease their anxiety.”

There is advice on helping children with autism return to school here and on seven ways to support your child with SEND at school here.

Fiona advises: “Talk about the worst case, best case and most likely scenario. Even though we can’t predict (things), it creates a sense of safety for children. And have a plan either way - know what you’re going to do in that situation.

“It’s also important for parents and families to have things you’re looking forward to. So, schedule in things like a pizza and movie night. Having that predictability in life is really important at the moment.”

3. Handling concerns over missed learning

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Fiona emphasises: “Learning is important but it’s the second layer of development. The first layer is a happy child who feels safe and connected. If they’re happy and safe in school the learning will come. If, as a parent, you’re worried about their learning, don’t let that creep into your child’s worries.

“Kids are so adaptable, and more resilient than we think.” - Dr Fiona Flinn

“Older children are going through a specific period of brain development. Teenagers aren't good at long term thinking... It feels like life is over if things didn’t happen the way they were supposed to. It’s important to validate, acknowledge and understand that - then go to problem solving. If, for example, A-levels didn’t work out, there are so many alternative pathways in education these days.

“Be flexible and be aware of other options... Hopefully plan A will work out but be open to having a plan B. Talk to school and talk to teachers, as it can be overwhelming to figure it out on your own.”

Rachel adds: “Praise your child for their level of effort, not the outcome. Reassure them that with continued effort, they will be able to achieve.”

4. Recognising your own worries about how you’ll cope

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Fiona says: “Going back to school and workplaces is a change. Even though it’s perceived as a positive thing, change is always difficult.

“Realise that and understand you’re going to have a whole range of emotions. You may feel anxious, excited or even guilty. It’s always important to observe how you’re feeling without judgement.

Rachel adds: “You often find that parents can project their own emotions onto their child. For example, a parent may feel anxious about the return to school and assume their child feels the same. However, their child may feel excited... Be mindful not to confuse your emotions with those of your child.

“Online communities and Facebook groups can be a great source of support, where you can connect with other parents and talk about your anxieties and fears about the school return.

“And acknowledge with your child that you may feel anxious or sad sometimes, but you employ healthy ways of helping you cope. For example, ‘Mummy can feel sad sometimes, but going for a walk always helps.’”

Fiona concludes: “It’s also about being realistic. You won’t get to a place with zero anxiety, but (at least to) where it’s manageable.” For all of you.

And remember, if there’s anything we’ve learnt, it is how resilient we are. Congratulate yourself on that.

You can also find advice from Rachel Vora and Dr Fiona Flinn on how to help your child settle back into the school routine here.

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