While some sense of normality has returned to our lives, families are still facing uncertainty day to day. This is especially true for our children. The year has thrown a lot of new challenges at them. They’ve had to manage concerns or anxieties about the COVID-19 situation, adapt to a whole new way of learning, cope with social distancing from friends and extended family, and are now needing to navigate the transition back to school, preschool or their early childhood setting.
Though it certainly had its challenges, many parents have reported that the time at home provided an opportunity for the family to reconnect, and gave their children a chance to slow things down, complete schoolwork at their own pace, take a break from extracurricular activities and benefit from one-to-one support.
Supporting children with the return to school and the eventual transition back to life after lockdown, without restrictions, is so important. The longer days, changed routine and structure of school are likely to impact some children more than others, causing stress and anxiety.
The ongoing changes can also take a toll on parents, so it’s vital for you to recognise and acknowledge your own feelings to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of the entire family can be supported.
Here are some tips for keeping your children’s mental health in check, as well as your own.
Reassure your child about the transition back to school and the COVID-19 situation
While the COVID-19 situation has dramatically improved, it’s natural for children to still have worries or feel uneasy about resuming some of the activities they can now go back to, particularly school.
- If your child has any ongoing concerns about the safety of school after time away due to COVID-19, reassure them that:
- The return to school is based on expert medical advice
- Everyone at school is working hard to ensure children and teachers are safe
- Children and teachers will stay at home if they’re feeling unwell
- If there are any risks with going to school, the government will make decisions about what needs to be done
- Give age-appropriate information about the ongoing COVID-19 situation and how it affects your family life, social life and school life
- Provide reassurance that it’s ok to have mixed emotions about going back to school – acknowledge that it’s completely normal for them to feel excited, scare, relieved, worried or anxious, and that many of their peers may be feeling the same way
- Speak positively – by being an optimistic and supportive role model, you can help your child feel more confident about being back at school
- Get them excited about school again by putting something fun or interesting in their lunchbox, so they have a surprise to look forward to each day!
Reinforce routines and habits
While the constant changes make sticking to a routine pretty tricky, it’s still so important to maintain some consistency at home. Here are some simple things you can try:
- Create a family schedule and go through it at the start of each week so everyone knows what to expect – it may be a good idea to have it on a whiteboard, so changes can easily be made as restrictions ease and more activities start up again
- Schedule dedicated family time – your child is sure to miss all the extra time they had with you while at home
- Keep morning and bedtime routines consistent, to help children get a good night’s rest and stay organised each morning
- Prepare your child for changes:
- Talk to your children about any new or different things that are happening (before they happen), so they understand and can then feel more comfortable
- If needed, use a social story to communicate changes (there are many available online for COVID-19 or you could make your own)
- Try not to make too many changes at once, particularly when social events and extracurricular activities start up again
- For parents still working at home, maintain the good habits you had when children were at home from school:
- Take regular breaks
- Get outside for exercise
- Create a distinction between work and life – start and finish work as if you were travelling to the office and back
- Continue to reinforce good hygiene practices – at home and when out
Speak to the teacher
After being at home, the transition back to school will be difficult for many children. If your child has any particular worries or anxieties about being back at school, let their teacher know so that they’re aware and can support them if needed. If there were any specific strategies that helped your child during home learning, ask whether similar supports could work in the classroom.
Children who faced challenges at school prior to learning at home may need some additional support from the teacher, or their learning support worker, to assist with the transition back to the classroom.
Support emotional regulation
Even if your child is excited about returning to school and other activities, the significant change may make it difficult for them to control their feelings and behaviour, requiring some support from you to help them manage.
The return to long, structured school days can cause those dreaded ‘meltdowns’ that may have gone away while at home. To manage these:
- Let your child unwind after school before asking too many questions
- Have a decent afternoon tea ready for when they’re home, or move dinner earlier while they’re still transitioning back into the school routine
- If your child is quite active, get them out and about to blow off some steam at the end of the day
- If they respond well to quiet time, ensure they have a secluded, comfortable place in the house where they can retreat at the end of the day to manage their thoughts and emotions
- Spend time re-connecting with them at the end of the day, where they have your undivided attention
If you child is particularly sensitive or has sensory needs, you could create a box of their favourite activities or calming items that they can access when they feel overwhelmed. It could also be a good idea to have a couple of small items for them to take to school, in case they need some time out.
Parents also need to make time to regulate emotions – take time out for yourself, allow moments to sit and breathe, and make sure you get some exercise. You may like to incorporate family relaxation sessions into your weekly schedule, eg. Yoga, meditation or a walk outside. It’s the simple things that can often make the biggest difference, particularly if you take the time to enjoy them regularly.
Have family check-ins
It can be beneficial to have family check-ins each week, to discuss your situation as a family and validate feelings. During check-ins:
- Make sure you talk about your own feelings as well as encouraging your children to talk about theirs
- If your child doesn’t want to talk, you could encourage them to write something or even draw a picture
On the way to school, or at the end of each day (when everyone has had a chance to unwind), discuss what your children are excited about or what concerns they may have so they feel prepared for the day.
And don’t forget to continue to organise phone or video calls with family members you can’t see in person, particularly grandparents.
Seek extra support
If you’ve noticed changes in your child’s behaviour over the last few months, they might still be adjusting to all the changes in their life. However, if their mental health starts impacting on their daily functioning, eg. not eating or sleeping, complaining of feeling unwell, not wanting to go to school or not engaging in activities they once loved, then it is best to reach out for additional support from a psychologist.
Teachers will be working hard to support students who may have fallen behind while learning remotely. If you developed any concerns about your child’s ability to learn or their progress while supporting them with schoolwork at home, speak to their teacher.
Consistent learning struggles could signify a broader issue, that may benefit from being supported by a formal diagnostic assessment or with specialist tutoring sessions.
Parents should also seek professional help if your own mental health and wellbeing has been impacted by the disruptions in your home or work life, or if you feel like you’re struggling to effectively support your child/ren to cope at home, or back at school.
Additional resources to support the transition back to school
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