Anxious feelings are completely normal in children returning to school. In fact, these feelings are often to be expected. While the transition from summer holidays back into the school year can sometimes be a stressful and even disruptive, this year is even more challenging as we attempt to manoeuvre a safe and effective return to the classroom following the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking to clinical psychologist Dr. Lili Ly, I was keen to understand what practical measures parents can take to help manage their children’s fears and ease anxieties as we prepare to return for another school year.
How can you tell if your child might be experiencing anxiety – are there any specific signs to look for?
In younger children, particularly of primary school age, their anxiety is more often shown through avoidant behaviour. They’re less likely to be able to articulate or say what they’re feeling because they’re still learning the language of emotional literacy. For example, at times they may not follow instruction as they normally would, become tearful when exposed to what makes them anxious or perhaps have trouble sleeping. In older children, you might notice changes in appetite, fatigue, nervousness or becoming more agitated or frustrated.
You say that these are more general indicators of anxiety. Could there be additional indicators if the anxiety is specifically related to going back to school?
Yes. These (above) behaviours suggest a higher level of general anxiety, however, if your child simply expresses a disinterest in returning to school or only shows these behaviours when the topic of school is brought up, it is a good indication that their discomfort lies with this particular scenario.
With that said, it’s really important for parents to keep in mind that going back to school after the holidays is going to be an anxious time anyway because it’s a change, and anything that causes change is naturally going to make people feel a bit anxious.
Are there any practical steps that parents can take to help ease this ‘back to school’ anxiety in their children?
The first thing is to follow government and school guidelines. A lot of schools are offering comprehensive guidance and support to families with children who are returning to school. Be proactive and make yourself aware of these procedures so that you can communicate them to your child in a gentle way before their return. Remember to normalise the situation by reminding your child that they’re not alone, lots of other children are experiencing this too and it’s expected to feel a bit apprehensive.
Don’t overload the child. Instead, choose 3-4 key items to communicate to them. It can also be comforting and reassuring for the child if you can share some of your own experiences of going back to school – again, this shows the child that you understand what they might be feeling, while also normalising it so that they know it’s okay to feel this way.
What about routines?
Being mindful of your child’s routine and even discussing what to expect a few days in advance can help to ease worries as they’ll know what’s coming. When things are uncertain, routine is a key area where you can provide some predictability. Sometimes visual planners can be useful for younger children as well if they’re finding it hard to remember things. You could create these together with your child.
What about children who are moving from year six to secondary school? Is there any additional advice you can offer?
This is one of the big transitions in a child’s school life. They’re stepping into a new environment with new timetables, different teachers for different subjects and less people that they know in general. What a child might do is to go and visit the school in year six. This helps them to familiarise themselves with the new system and environment. Due to covid, some schools might offer a video tour instead, so do reach out and ask if something like this is available.
It’s worth remembering that children are more resilient than we may think and adapt to new situations all the time.
Case studies: parents’ questions answered
‘My child tends to get very anxious when I drop them off at school and I’m anticipating this being a problem again. Do you have any advice on how to manage this?’
This is a great question and it’s a common problem. It’s important to remember that children tend to respond in relation to their parents. So, if the parent is overprotective or perhaps feeling anxious about the situation themselves, then the child is likely to pick up on that.
Children tend to take cues from the parent’s behaviour and so in these instances, it can be helpful to be mindful of your own behaviour.
We can easily find ourselves getting caught up in all the reasons why our child might be anxious about going back to school, but often children can be quite excited about returning as well. So, focusing on the exciting aspects like getting to see friends again, seeing their favourite teachers, re-engaging in school activities etc, can help to lighten feelings of discomfort.
‘My child says that they don’t want to return to school in September. What can I do?’
When someone feels anxious or worried about something, it’s very common to try to avoid that thing, but actually avoidance is what keeps the problem going, so it’s really important for the parent to encourage the child to go to school.
Starting the conversation early can be really helpful with this. Children cope better when you routinely offer information in small pieces, rather than trying to hash everything out over one afternoon. Creating that safe space to have routine check-ins and conversations with your child, and listening to how they’re feeling rather than waiting until the night before they’re set to return to school, is a much better way to minimise worries and anxieties.
Something I like to recommend to parents is to attach their ‘check-in’ time to a daily activity, such as mealtimes. Making it a daily habit takes the pressure off and offers the child a more casual space to open up. Be curious about your child but try to avoid coming across as if you’re interrogating them! By making it a daily habit, you’re creating a space for you to check-in with your child and for your child to feel heard on a regular basis, which is truly an invaluable thing for their wellbeing and development and also helps with bonding.
‘How can I encourage my child to follow safety precautions i.e. handwashing, social distancing etc, without scaring them?’
It’s really important to inform yourself on what the school’s procedures will be before discussing these with your child. Remember, learning when anxious is not helpful, so by giving yourself a chance to absorb and become comfortable with the messaging and instructions before speaking to your child means that you’re more likely to communicate things in a more calm and factual way. Try to be mindful of what your own concerns might be and make a conscious effort to focus on the positive reasons for following these procedures.
For younger children, making fun associations with otherwise mundane tasks can be very encouraging. For example, introducing sing-a-longs for washing hands or putting on face masks can make the activity that much more enjoyable. It can also be helpful to ‘say the behaviour that you want to see’. For example, instead of saying ‘you always forget to wash your hands before eating’, expressing things like ‘let’s wash our hands before we eat’ is much clearer for the child.
You spoke about the importance of creating a routine of checking in with your child. ‘How can I gently check in to see if my child is coping well with this transition?’
Coming back to my previous point, establishing a regular routine of ‘checking in’ is really the best way of nurturing consistent communication with your child. Children can tend to feel a bit worried about being worried and often don’t want to burden their parents. Sharing times that you were anxious as a child can help open up conversations. Show interest by fully listening and being curious about your child’s experience rather than demanding information directly can also be really helpful and just letting them know that you’re there in a gentle way is important. For example, using phrases like:
- When I was at school, I felt similar/ thought about similar things
- That’s great you enjoyed (art) today. What did you enjoy about it?
‘How can I tell if my child might need further support? Where can I go to access this kind of support?’
If some of the discussed behaviours persist for an extended period, roughly around 3 months or more, then it might be worth speaking to your GP about getting further support. Keep in mind that anxiety is a very natural human response to when things are unpredictable or uncertain, whether we’re dealing with a pandemic or not. For children in particular, facing new situations is a very normal and healthy part of their development – it’s how they learn.
If you’re concerned about the anxiety that you’re observing in your child, try to take a moment to step back and check in with yourself first, before getting too concerned. Often when we’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed ourselves, it can heighten the anxiety that we perceive around us. In this instance, leaning on your support network – whether that’s family, friends, a partner or a school – can be really beneficial as a first step in understanding and managing our worries and concerns. Subsequently, when we feel more relaxed around a situation, it’s not uncommon to notice our children being more at ease, too.
Dr Lili Ly is a Clinical Psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre. She has worked with children, young people and families for over 10 years and is Programme Director of the Educational Mental Health Practitioner (EMHP) Programme at AFC/ University College London. This programme trains mental health practitioners to provide evidence-based interventions in schools and colleges across London and the South East. Visit the Anna Freud Centre section on support for parents and carers during coronavirus.
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