Nobody ever thought kids would spend half the year off school in 2020.
But now that we’ve adjusted to lockdown, homeschooling and a lot of screen time, the return to formal education can seem even more daunting, with some parents worried how their children will get back into the swing of things.
Child psychologist Amanda Gummer says children are resilient and, as long as they know what the rules are, they’ll adapt quickly to different scenarios. “Just because school in September might be different to school in January, it doesn’t mean it’ll have a long-term effect on them,” she told HuffPost UK.
But she acknowledges that for some children, worrying about going back could affect their performance – so it’s important to find ways to reassure them. “Kids don’t learn if they’re stressed, anxious or worried,” she said. “If you’re stressed, your cortisol levels are raised and you can’t learn.”
“It’s important to get children used to playing together again and socializing, first – whatever that looks like – without worrying too much about academic performance,” she added.
The good news is there are things parents can be doing right now, in the lead-up to school, that may make that first day a little bit easier.
Re-introduce a routine.
Author and parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi says one way to help parents get their kids prepared for September is by reintroducing a routine.
“I always recommend parents start reintroducing routine before the end of the summer,” she told HuffPost UK. “This helps to ease their children back into meal and bedtimes that are more in line with when they’re back at school – but this year, it’s going to be even more important than ever.”
She added: “If you have let routine slip into being very relaxed, I’d be looking to bring things back a good week before the start of year. Do it gradually, and it’ll be less stressful for you all by the time term starts and the alarm clock returns!”
Talk about school – and focus on the positives.
We can’t get away from the fact school is going to be a little different this fall, said Joshi. With this in mind, talk to your child about changes they might experience as much as you’re aware of them. “If they look concerned about it all, remember to focus on the positives – the things they’ll still be able to do, not just the things that they can’t do at the moment,” she said.
For children making a big transition in September, such as starting elementary school or moving on to middle, it’ll be a bit harder than normal, added Joshi. “Do your best to familiarize them with the new school: walk past and talk about the aspects of their new school life that you do know about.”
Role play being back at school.
Gummer says you can introduce school back into their lives in a more subtle way, like using Playmobil or even Sylvanian Families, for example, and asking your child “how the little bunny rabbit feels about being back at school.”
“Toys provide a layer of protection for the kids when it comes to revealing how they’re feeling, because they can pretend it’s about the bunny – not them,” she said. “You can address real issues, without being too emotive.”
Start having playdates.
Getting your child used to socializing again is important, said Gummer. “One-on-one playdates at the park or in the backyard, or wherever you feel safe, are a good idea,” she said. “It will help get kids used to being together again.”
Read more bedtime stories.
“Kids who haven’t been doing a huge amount of reading or home learning might need a gentle reintroduction into school-type learning using bedtime stories,” suggested Gummer.
“You can ask them some questions at the end [of the story] to see if they’ve taken it in. Or, try doing a jigsaw puzzle to build up attention and concentration and help them access that type of learning, when they return to school.”
Ultimately, let them lead.
Gummer says kids can be anxious about lots of things, so it’s important to allow space to have age-appropriate conversations. “Let them know it’s okay to ask questions and it’s alright if they’re feeling nervous about school,” Gummer said.
“Play games, read books, and give them plenty of opportunities to talk through any concerns. Be aware if you’re expecting them to be anxious, you might interpret what they’re saying in a more complex way, so let your child direct the conversation,” she added.