Going back to school can be difficult at the best of times, but when many children haven’t even stepped foot in a school for nearly six months, the start of the new term really can send anxiety levels spiralling out of control.
Supporting children’s mental health will hopefully be at the forefront for schools and teachers as the transition back into full time education happens next week, but many children (and parents) are still anxious about going back to school and suffering from new term nerves.
We spoke to two of our experts on children’s mental health, to discuss how the last six months have impacted our children and why teaching them resilience is going to be key as they enter the new school year.
Jayne Lindsay is founder of Calm Little Minds, an emotional wellbeing service that offers support to children, young people and their families in Buckinghamshire. Jayne works predominately with primary school age children.
Helen Evans is a Counsellor for teenagers and adults; alongside her private practice Helen works part time in a local secondary school and is highly experienced helping teens to feel happier and healthier.
Have you seen rising cases of anxiety in children due to lockdown & covid19?
Jayne: Yes, although it has taken longer than I initially thought. During lockdown I didn’t see a significant rise; I think families settled into home routines and were enjoying the time to just be, rather than racing to work, school, and activities. Once lockdown began to ease this is when the problems arose, as children had been taught to stay away from others and generally hadn’t been seeing friends and family. Things quickly began to open up and life began to have some normality, but with no real thought for the children who then had to adapt and suddenly be ok with going to a restaurant or to the park or on a play date – which had been out of bounds for months. It’s very hard, especially for younger children to get their head around such a shift and this is where a lot of the worry began to take shape.
Helen: I have definitely seen cases of anxiety in teenagers since lock down, but it’s hard to say whether cases have increased or have just come to light where they may not have before. Actually, for some teenagers, anxiety levels have decreased and some of their worries have been taken away, as they haven’t been going to school (which can be a big cause of anxiety).
Have you noticed a difference in the attitudes and behaviours of the children you have been working with?
Jayne: We definitely noticed a difference with the children attending our summer camps. Week one was quite an eye opening and exhausting, it was like we had to re train the children! They struggled mostly with free play and many had lost the skills to be independent, share, problem solve and even tolerate each other. Following instructions was also a challenge for many as well as sitting and listening. So, we set to work on tackling these issues; we used team work and games, gave the children responsibilities and showed them how to work things out between them, without the need of an adult. They really came on leaps and bounds and we noticed a huge drop in telling tales!
Do you think children / parents are worried about returning to schools?
Jayne: I think this is probably 50/50. Some cannot wait whilst some are anxious and definitely suffering from new term nerves, which I think comes down to everyone having had a different experience of the virus and lockdown. Lots of the children I’ve spoken to over the summer are looking forward to going back to school to see their friends and have been talking about their bubbles and they don’t seem too worried. Having said that, I am working with many children already to prepare them for next week and help them combat the worries they have about returning to school.
Helen: I think there is probably a mix of feelings and emotions out there. Naturally I think there is some apprehension about returning to schools having been away so long. I think there will also be some excitement too for some children who are looking forward to seeing their friends again and learning in classroom environments rather than at home. For parents, there is perhaps a sense of relief to getting back to normal, as well as also a sense of slight unknown and apprehension with what to expect.
Do you think a sense of structure is key for children’s health and happiness – are schools important for this?
Jayne: I definitely feel that structure is key for children’s health and happiness. Children respond to rules and boundaries as it makes them feel safe and secure and they thrive on this, so yes, structure is key. As long as children know what is happening and when, I find that they feel content and are able to be much happier. Since the schools closed, children have lost so many skills and routines which they need to feel independent, safe and well.
Helen: I do think that a sense of structure and routine is really important for children’s health and happiness, and I think that schools are key in providing a big part of that structure and routine. What we have just been through in lockdown has been an absolute first for everyone and I still feel that there is a sense of unreality about what we’ve experienced – did this actually all really happen?! It’s quite a lot for us all to get our heads around, so for schools to start providing structure again can certainly support a sense of normality and security.
What can parents do to support their children go back to school in a happy & healthy way?
Jayne: Firstly routine, this is key. Children need to be fed, bathed and in bed at the time they would have before lockdown, ideally this should be taking place now! Sleep is so important and the lack of it can increase children’s anxiety.
Secondly, talk positively about school, rather than sharing any worries you might have with them. You might feel bad that they didn’t get the end of term transitions, but they might not have noticed, so therefore talk positively, “you are in year 3 now, you are so grown up, it’s going to be a great year” rather than “I’m sorry you didn’t transition and meet your teacher before the summer, it’s going to be such a tricky time for you”.
Thirdly, validate your children’s worries but don’t dwell on them. Move on from the worry and use distraction. If you’re struggling to get them out the door on the morning of school, you might like to try turning it into a game and timing them to get their shoes on to see who can do it the fastest, or who can get in the car first or even put a treat or note in their lunchbox for being brave and going to school with a smile.
Helen: Being positive with children, helping them to think about the things that will be good about going back to school, seeing their friends, being able to ask questions to teachers in person, playing sport and socialising at lunch and break times. Also talk about some of the aspects that might feel harder to them, help them to vocalise what those aspects are and what is on their mind, and think together about ways to overcome the things they are feeling worried about. Remember that as parents we don’t have a magic wand to fix all our children’s (and our own) worries, but talking openly and honestly about how we are feeling helps us to rationalise, normalise and manage those feelings.
Also remember to try and keep having fun and laughing with your children, it’s easy for life to get a bit serious and for us to forget to have fun, or play and laugh together. Whether that is through playing a game, watching a funny film or program that everyone enjoys, cooking or going on a bike ride or some other outdoor activity. It’s important to create the time to do something together that will raise a smile and change the dynamic.
What can children, especially teenagers, do to prepare themselves for going back to school – especially if they are feeling a bit nervous?
Helen: If children are suffering with new term nerves they should connect with their friends in advance of going back to school and check they’ve got all the things that they will need. Feeling prepared and in control of the things they can will help reduce any feelings of anxiety.
Get up to speed with the things that might be different about the school now, e.g. taking bags in or any uniform changes. Help them to be as informed as they can be so that they know what to expect and that limits the number of ‘unknowns’ when they return.
Talk about the fact that it may feel strange for the first few days but that it will soon feel normal again. Don’t underestimate your teenagers’ ability to adapt!
Why is resilience so crucial and what can parents be doing to help their children build it?
Jayne: It’s so important to teach your children that you won’t always be there to fix things for them. So many parents try to fight every little battle for their child, thinking they are helping but in fact they are not allowing their child to find their own solutions. Over the summer we have had small issues with some of the children on the holiday camps not sharing or arguing or not wanting to play with another child. We talk to the children about what has happened and encourage them to try and work it out. However, for some parents their solution to problems like this is to simply not let their child play with another child. We would never advise this as it just isn’t a real-life solution. You cannot avoid problems and we shouldn’t teach children that you can. For example, if you don’t get on with someone in a working environment you cannot be separated or avoid them, you just have to learn how to get along and be civil and professional. Children need to learn that everyone is different and they will like some people and won’t like others. In return they need to know that some people will like them and others won’t AND that is ok. If you don’t help your child to learn resilience from a young age you are setting them up for a fall as they will always expect someone else to solve things for them or for everything to always go their way. Whilst at a young age this may seem a bit harsh, it’s definitely a gain for them in the long term.
Helen: Resilience and the idea of ‘bounce-backability’ are key for teenagers; they need to know that if things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. As parents’ it’s important that we allow our teenagers to experience things going wrong, or differently to how we expected and allowing them the chance and experience to sort it out. If we jump in and ‘fix’ things at every given opportunity we deny our children the experience of building up resilience and having an understanding that if things don’t go according to plan, it’s generally ok! This is hard to do as a parent, as we naturally want to step in and help where we can. So my message it to be aware of where we can be a bit more hands off to allow the growth moments for our teens.
What services are you currently offering to support children and families?
Jayne: I am offering my 1:1 emotional wellbeing sessions, where I teach children tools and techniques to help them cope with whatever is worrying or troubling them (parents can then carry on implementing these tools at home). I also offer support to parents and run workshops and events on a range of wellness topics for children and families.
Helen: I offer one-to-one counselling sessions with teens as well as adults. It may be that you feel you’d like your teen to go for some counselling and they won’t entertain it, so sometimes it can be helpful to have a session or two for the parent to help them during this tricky time. Normalising what is happening and understanding where behaviours are normal, or where there may be a need for more intervention. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions at all.