Coronavirus is still very present in our lives, but the government have made a commitment that all children will be returning to school in September. This is a ‘back to school’ like no other before, with some children having been at home since March, and other children being able to go in for limited amounts of time in the summer term.
Some families may have done lots of ‘home learning’ and other families for various reasons will have done very little. Likewise, some families may have been able to have a holiday, whereas for others the summer holidays have merged into the ongoing school closure. How then, should you help prepare your child for the return to school? We spoke to Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas, who shared some thoughts.
She suggests that parents ‘Tune in to how your children are feeling right now. The first thing might be just watching and listening and hearing what they're chatting about to their siblings or online to their friends. What's the mood?’ She then suggested that ‘following on from that, very simply, ask them. You could say ‘Wow, this lockdown has been so weird and you haven't been to school for millions of years. What do you think it's going to be like in September?’
It is important to realise that some children may say that they are fine, but might display other behaviours which suggest that they are not fine, and it is important to notice this, as well as what the child says. Melville-Thomas talks about trusting your ‘gut instinct’ as a parent at this time. If the child says that they are fine, but don’t appear fine, check again and keep observing.
Accept feelings rather than trying to ‘fix’ the difficulty straight away.
Melville-Thomas comments that it is also important to accept children’s feelings. For example, ‘if a child says, I don’t want to go back to school, and even that they hate school, it is important that we as parents or even teachers don't simply contradict them. So don’t say ‘No, it'll be great. You'll see your friends, or Mrs. Johnson will be there, or you're moving up into year nine – how exciting”.
Instead she suggests that parents acknowledge the feeling by saying something simple like ‘I'm glad you told me that, tell me a bit more about how you feel.’ She emphasises staying with the difficult feeling rather than trying to ‘fix’ the difficulty straight away. This is an approach that child psychotherapists are very much trained to use with children and young people in therapy. Once the difficult things have been explored, children can then be reminded of some of the things that they may have to look forward to or feel hopeful about.
If your child is too young to be able to talk about these feelings, Melville-Thomas suggests that you observe your child’s play, or drawings. You could role play a game about school with masks and being in a bubble, or, she suggests, ‘you can look at the kinds of drawings and play they do. Is there a lot of crashing and breaking things in it? Or is it more hopeless and bored?’ She recalls a parent saying that her child wasn’t interested in anything. He picked things up and put things down as if everything was a bit pointless, which was a useful indicator of his feelings. That observation could then be used to explore what was going on for him. She suggested ‘I would say if someone's listless and fed up, a parent could say “looks like you’re a bit fed up about that…Oh, that must be hard…tell me more about that feeling.”
Younger children might also need some help with the idea of “mixed feelings” says Melville-Thomas – so parents can talk about how you could feel both happy and worried about school at the same time.
Imagining the changed world
Melville-Thomas also discusses the importance of using imagination about what the return to school is going to be like. ‘When you're five, it's imagining who will be in your class, whether the teacher will be nice, where the toilets are, and what's in the playground, those kinds of things.’ However, in the current post lockdown context, parents can help children to imagine what they think it’s going to be like now. For example, where they will go in and out of the building, what the arrangements for lunch are, what being in a bubble will be like. It is important for parents to do this as well as children, as it helps parents to process the new school landscape, to think about what will be the same, what will be different, what will be lost, and what may be gained. In this way, parents will then be in a better position to support their children with the changed world, rather than relying on how things used to be.
It's also really helpful to imagine what your child’s inner world feels like, says Melville-Thomas. What other things are they thinking about? Granny being ill at the moment? Will my friends still like me? Why is Dad cross about money all the time? Being aware of what else they might be fretting about, can help put school worries into context.
Catching up – taking a playful approach
Many parents, and perhaps young people, are understandably worried that they have ‘fallen behind’ academically. There is a worry about how to help children ‘catch up’, but instead it may be more helpful to think about how to get children interested in learning again. Melville-Thomas advocates taking ‘a playful approach. If you're helping your child to want to engage in school again, do it playfully.’ Learning in a game, or with friends, is often a good way to get the brain active again. Melville-Thomas talks about trying to find the child or young person’s ‘spark’. Is there something that animates them as they are talking? This may not be something connected with school, but may give insight into something that they can get interested in again. Going back to school isn’t just about getting good marks, and it will be hard for everyone to get going again after such a long break. It is also important to remind children and young people that there will be lots of people that are able to support their learning at school, and think with them about who they might feel comfortable asking for help.
When to get more help?
Melville-Thomas points out that younger children often show that they are struggling by changes in their behaviour. She says ‘if you have a child who's having difficulty sleeping, or bedwetting again, or saying they have a lot of physical symptoms such as headaches and tummy aches, or bad dreams, seem more irritable, tearful or clingy, you want to figure out what's this all about?’ As child psychotherapists, we are trying to understand what's behind the “difficult” or “puzzling” behaviour, and to help parents understand too. What does it mean? What is a child saying?’ If you are worried about these changes, it may be helpful to speak to a GP or a member of school staff.
However, with older children and teenagers, signs that they are struggling emotionally, present in a different way. Melville-Thomas says – ‘you see things like low mood and irritability. Teenagers can often be irritable, so it isn’t always obvious that they are depressed.’ Another key alarm signal is losing interest in things that they used to do. If this is caused by a change of mood, it tends to be ongoing, usually for about two weeks. Melville-Thomas suggests that parents and young people talk to their GP at this point and share concerns. Websites, such as Young Minds also have some good information and online support.
She also advises parents to not dwell on newspaper headlines predicting the terrible impact that the pandemic will have had on children and young people’s educational achievements for the future, but instead to focus on what you can do to help settle your child or young person back into school now.
If you are interested in finding out more about the way child psychotherapists work, and are trained, please visit our website.