Supporting a smooth and happy return to school: helping your child adjust to the changes.

For many children, the return to school will be a happy and welcomed experience. It will mean a new beginning and a long-awaited reconnection with school, friends and teachers.

Many will be ‘a ball of energy’ on their first day, racing out the front door and not looking back as they meet their teachers and friends with imaginative greetings, that accommodate the new norm of social distancing. You as parents may also feel great relief as there is a sense of some normality and respite from the many demands you are currently juggling.

However, it may not be surprising to feel conflicting emotions as we transition from our safe and homely cocoons and back out into a changed and somewhat mysterious world. The return to school may stir up some concerns and worries alongside the relief and joy that we and the children may feel.

We have all been driven much more by the emotional and threat detecting parts of our brain over recent months – for example we have been extremely sensitive and alert to our surrounding; to where it is safe to be; and who it is safe to be with. Our children will have noticed this and at their different levels of development understood that out there in the world has not been a safe place to be. Now we are changing that message a little and saying that it is safe to be in school.

As adults and as families we have been out of our homes to do tasks such as shopping and more recently meeting other family members or friends at a distance, often experiencing both excitement and some trepidation about it. Although we are gradually adapting to it, we are also reminded by all the new safety arrangements and guidelines that the world is not as safe as it used to be or as we would like it to be. School will be another place where we will need to get used to new and different arrangements.

It is natural therefore, that just like us, some children may initially have some worries or conflicting feelings about it. They may feel a strong desire to be near to you or show behaviours that indicate they are adapting to this change. This could include more of the kinds of behaviours that they might default to when they are a little unsettled as they and we adjust to these changes. These behaviours might include:

  • Reluctance or refusal to go to school
  • Increased tearfulness
  • Increased clingyness in the morning and reluctance to leave you
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep on nights before school
  • Displays of emotion such as: Temper tantrums on school mornings or more general grumpiness
  • Complaining of feeling sick or unwell- especially stomach aches, headaches, sore legs etc
  • Increased distractibility or poor concentration and memory
  • Hyperactive behaviours or withdrawn behaviours
  • Increased clingyness with teachers
  • Regressions or behaviours more suited to an earlier age
  • Previous patterns of behaviour that you know are possibly related to stress

Our initial reaction may be to jump to the conclusion that these behaviours are signs of disobedience, being naughty, or attention seeking. However, research into trauma and anxiety has shown that these behaviours have a far more primal and adaptive brain science base around survival. Hence, they may be triggered by our survival response of ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’.

iSpace wellbeing schools have been using our parent and child resources which explain this for both children and parents and provide numerous tools to help parents support their children

The online resources have been preparing the children for this transition and they have been learning how to recognise and manage their emotions, and to develop iSpace skills and tools to help them to self-care. They have also been building their iSpace language to help them to communicate their emotions and feelings with others and this will continue on their return to school.

Top tips

  • Prepare your child in advance for the school routine.
  • Ask your children what they are looking forward to and what they think might be different.
  • Talk about what might be different and remind them of other recent experiences that have been a bit different but still enjoyable. Reassure them that different is ‘OK’ – it might feel a bit strange at first, and we might have some feelings, but that is alright too.
  • At the end of their first day, find out what they enjoyed, focus on what has been the same or similar to normal and also to being at home e.g. hand washing. Be curious and notice alongside them the things that are a bit different – try to use a curious rather than worried tone and approach to these conversations.
  • Gently talk through the school safety procedure so that they are familiar with them. Decide with them how and when you are going to say goodbye including kisses and hugs.
  • Stay curious, empathetic and patient. Predict and assume that you are facing a worried or frightened child rather than a disobedient one.
  • Try naming your emotions. These can be names such as “happy” “excited” “sad”, “angry” or “worried”. However you can also use descriptive words such as “shaky”, “fizzy”, “wobbly”, “fidgety” “gurgly”, “floaty”, “heavy”. It is also possible to feel two things at once – to be excited and a bit fearful! The children have been learning how to ‘name it to tame it’ using the online iSpace resources.
  • Problem solve with your child – if something is a particular ‘niggle’ (little worry) or Stressor (big worry), acknowledge the feelings and then work with them, using the iSpace tools to help come up with a few solutions.
  • Stay calm yourselves. Fear and worry is easily transmitted to children and we have all had good reason to be fearful. Some of you may still have a niggling worry as to whether you are doing the right thing in sending your child to school. This is very natural. You may be experiencing other stresses and worries in relation to the current situation also. When our children express their feelings through their behaviour, it can sometimes trigger our own feelings of worry or frustration. However, if we can notice our own feelings and focus on containing and managing these, whether that is through finding support from others or in using other strategies including plenty of self-compassion, we will be much better at supporting our children in feeling safe and happy in their transition back into school and in adapting to the new normal.

iSpace Wellbeing is the mental health and wellbeing curriculum for schools and children 4-13+. Our curriculums are evidence based, progressive, and offer whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing.  

To see if iSpace Wellbeing is right for your child’s school, visit here to learn more.

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