Eight ways to support your child as they return to secondary school
By Julia Clements, Educational Psychologist
Whilst the global pandemic has changed just about everyone’s lives, it could be argued that children and young people have been disproportionately affected by lockdown, school closures and the requirements of social distancing. After family, school is the most significant system in a child or teenager’s life, and it offers stability, consistency and predictability - as well as a chance to hang out with friends - all of which is important to young people’s emotional wellbeing. Your child may have a real mix of emotions as the new term approaches. Here are some tips to help support your child as they start or return to secondary school.
1. Get organised
Your child may have grown out of clothes and shoes since they last attended school full time, or they may need new uniform if starting a new school. Begin to look at home for uniform, PE kit, bags, books, stationery etc. so you can see what they already have and what else they may need. If the list is long (and expensive) see what can be sourced second-hand or from supermarkets. Encourage your child to get involved with this practical task by finding and sorting things and making lists. This will get them into ‘getting ready for school’ mode and will give them some sense of choice and control over the process.
2. Get into a routine
It’s likely that your child will be out of routine in terms of bed times, waking up times and eating. About a week before school starts encourage them to get to bed at a decent time, wake a little earlier and eat regularly at more ‘usual’ times. Teenagers have a different circadian (sleep/wake) rhythm than adults so it’s entirely normal for them to want to go to bed later and get up later than you, especially if they are out of the routine of getting up for school. However, teenagers need about nine hours of sleep per night to function well, so do encourage them to get this, on as many nights as possible.
3. Make time to listen carefully to any worries
Your child may be worried about returning to school, starting a new school, or separating from you after having spent much more time at home. They may be worried that they have fallen behind in their learning and the impact of this for exams. They may have concerns about friendships that may have changed, especially if they’ve been unable to have much face to face contact with their friends. Your child may also be anxious about the practical arrangements and restrictions imposed by school around social distancing, staying in ‘bubbles’, hand hygiene and the cleaning of equipment. Some teenagers may feel their freedom is being inhibited by these necessary measures.
Although we often want to reassure children that they will be ok, sometimes we dismiss or invalidate their feelings by doing this. For example, we might say “don’t be silly” when they tell us something that worries them. Instead, try to ‘validate’ feelings – i.e. let them know that their feelings are real, and that you have heard them . So instead of using phrases such as “don’t worry” try “of course you feel….” “it’s to be expected that you feel …” “it’s entirely natural that you feel…”.
4. Help your child to problem-solve
Problem-solving can be really useful if your child is starting to get overwhelmed by their worries. Some steps to help them problem-solve could include:
Help your child to write on separate bits of paper or sticky notes all the things that are worrying them. Put the worries into piles headed “things I can do something about” and “things I can’t do anything about”. Focus on the things your child can do something about and help them problem-solve around this. So, for example, if they are worried that they are out of the loop with friends then a solution might be to call or message a friend who is most likely to respond positively and to organise a socially distanced meet-up before going back to school.
It may well be that your child’s worries are mostly about things they can do little about. In which case it could be useful to look at some of those things and see if there is something you can do about them. If so, take that worry away from them and see if you can sort it out. There may also be some worries that actually are for others, such as their teachers, to sort out. Again, you could take this away and say that you’re going to contact their teacher and see if they can help.
This exercise will help your child to think more rationally, to problem-solve and enlist help from others when worries get too big.
5. Remind your child how they have coped with difficulties in the past
When children and young people get overwhelmed they forget just how much they have already survived in their lives. At the very least your child has already coped with transitioning from home to primary and maybe on to secondary school. They may have also survived other big changes, such as house moves or changes to family life through divorce or bereavement. Tell them stories about how proud you were when they coped with these moments. This will remind them of their resilience – their ability to adapt to difficult situations. Ask your child how they managed in the past and encourage them to use these strategies again. Remind them to ask for help from you and other trusted adults when they need it as drawing on supportive relationships is another important aspect of being resilient when things get tough.
6. Be a good role model
Be aware of your own anxious responses and make sure you have strategies for getting to a calm space before trying to support your child. Children learn from observing their parents and anxiety is very ‘catching’ so if you are anxious your child will pick up on this. It’s good to name what you are feeling, for example “ oh I’m really on edge today” and to do something to regulate your feeling “I think walking the dog might help”. Encourage your child to find ways to help regulate their anxiety – through music, art, physical activity or whatever they enjoy which calms them.
7. Anxiety may hide behind challenging behaviour
If your child’s behaviour changes or becomes difficult leading up to their return to school, it could be really useful to stop and think what emotions might be driving this behaviour. The likelihood is that they are fearful, worried, anxious or unsure. Rather than just tackling the behaviour make sure you talk to your child about underlying feelings, as outlined above.
8. Seek professional support
If you are concerned about your child then contact their school and/or get an appointment to see the GP.
By Julia Clements, Principal Educational Psychologist at children’s mental health charity Place2Be.