Returning back to school: advice for families
With children and young people returning back to school this week, Jackie Lunt Clinical Lead for Sefton MHST shares some advice for parents and carers.
What are the biggest concerns with children returning after lockdown?
The vast majority of children will be fine, they will settle back into the normal routine of school life over the next few weeks.
Some children will find returning back to school more difficult and may benefit from some extra support. There are many reasons why children may be finding it difficult to return to school after this winter lockdown. Some children struggle with the demands of the school day and have enjoyed being at home and not having to go out to school. These children may need extra time to settle back into the routines required to be able to attend school again.
Children from households who have experienced stressful events during lockdown such as bereavement, loss of employment or parental separation may find it harder to go to school and leave their parents because they are worried about their welfare. There are children who generally struggle to manage any changes in their routine and the accumulative impact of a large number of changes over the last year feels overwhelming for them. Teenagers may have spent a lot of time on game devices and may not want to reduce this activity as part of a return to school routine.
Children who for whatever reason, have not been able to keep up with the homeschooling work may feel that they are returning to school academically behind their peers. Parents may also be worrying that they have not been able to keep up with the homeschooling work. I’m a working mum who has had some good days and some days when we were doing well to complete any school work at all. I’ve been personally taken by surprise by just how much I learned from a year 2 maths lesson!
What should parents be looking out for?
Parents know their own children and have a sense when something is not quite right. We recognise that parents are the experts on their own children.
With older children and teenagers parents and carers may notice changes in mood or behaviour. They may be more reluctant to talk with their parents, be less cooperative and may seek to spend more time alone. They may be feeling like they have lost touch with their friends and peer group. It may be hard for some teenagers to stay focussed on achieving exam results when they may be faced with coursework alternatives to the exams as they had planned to do. A sense of hope for the future is really important for emotional wellbeing.
Younger children tend to show that they are struggling through their behaviour they often just don’t have the words to express what is going on for them inside and it comes out in their actions. Parents and carers may see an increase in uncooperative behaviours and meltdowns. Younger children may show signs of trying to over-control things and maybe peers because they feel so out of control inside. They may wrap their worries up in angry and aggressive outbursts towards things or even people. Their brain has not sufficiently matured to be able to translate these big feelings into words yet.
What advice would you give to parents to support children and young people transitioning back to school?
There are lots of things parents and carers can do to support. Younger children may benefit from help in managing the big emotions. Even really young children can benefit from help in managing their big emotions. There’s an idea we call ‘name it to tame it’ and it means that if we can help children give a name to this big thing that is happening inside them they have a starting place to begin to take control of it. Naming an emotion is the first stage of controlling it. This idea can also be used with older young people to help them name more complex emotions.
It is important that children and young people have at least one always available reliable trusted adult who they can talk to and is interested in them. Research overwhelmingly shows that this is a major factor in getting through difficult times and finding resilience.
Parents and carers can make sure that their child or young person knows that they are available to talk and listen when they ready. Parents and carers can ask open-ended questions to gently invite a response. So you could ask
“Is there anything that you think I need to know about you going back to school, is there anything you would like to tell me?”
“Is there anything your teacher needs to know about you going back to school?”
There may not be an answer right away and there may be some thinking time needed. You may follow up with another question such as “is it ok if I ask you this again in a few days?” This will let your child know you are interested and willing to listen when they are ready to talk. It is important that you are good to your word and do ask again in a few days.
During my years working in CAMHS, I would often ask young people why they had not told their parent or carer what they were telling me. The answer would often be that they just want to be listened to and properly heard and if they told their parent they would go straight into trying to solve the problem. I can see how this is tempting but, it’s important for parents and carers to remember just how important it is to be listened to.
It’s important to remember that we have all experienced the loss of our assumptive world; things are different and may well be different for the foreseeable future. We are all being asked to feel safe within the uncertainty. I can’t remember a time when it was more important to have compassion for ourselves as well as each other.
What support is available for children and young people returning to school?
Younger children may benefit from the reassurance that the grown-ups all know what to do to keep everyone safe in school. They will be able to do their part by washing their hands and making sure they listen to the rules in school about how things are going to be done for the next few months at least.
Schools are making their own preparations for the children to return to school again. School staff are mindful that it may take some time for all the children to get into a psychological state where they can learn. They have a good idea of which children are likely to need additional support. Some money has been made available for each school to spend on resources to help settle all children back into learning and reach their academic potential.
If parents are worried about their child’s return to school it may be worth a conversation with a member of the school staff. Your child’s school will be able to signpost to appropriate agencies who are able to offer support to parents and families. Parents can also look at their local authority website to look at what is available in their local offer. For parents who are extremely worried about their child’s mental health, we would advise ringing the CAMHs helpline. At Alder Hey, we have a 24hour hours 7 days a week crisis line that parents can ring and talk to a child mental health professional about their concerns.
Clinical Lead Sefton MHST