Ask the Experts: How can I help my kids transition back to school?

This year has been like no other, with usual routines flying out the window. During the first lockdown many of us had to get used to our new normal, including kids not being able to attend school. It’s understandable then that returning to how things were, and for kids this means returning to school, is anxiety-inducing.

happy family

Here we speak to counsellor Katie Cakirer to find out how we can support our kids if they’re feeling anxious about returning to school. 

My youngest (primary school age) is feeling worried about returning to school. Do you have any suggestions for how they can manage this and what I can do to help?

As anxiety is largely based on the fear of the unknown, information and preparation is key to managing those worries. Therefore communication with school, looking on the website for any changes that have been made, and hopefully pictures are all incredibly useful.  

Reassure your child that although things may look a little different, there will be lots of things that stay the same. For example, seeing their friends, doing maths/ english/ science class, the building and playground will largely be the same as well. Finding out information about school lunches, drop off and pick up routines can also be helpful. Information helps us to feel more in control of a situation which in turn decreases the anxiety.

Are there any warning signs I can look out for to tell if my child is struggling with being back at school?

Children display worries, anxieties and insecurities in a variety of ways including under eating/overeating, not sleeping well or sleeping too much, being clingy with particular ‘safe’ adults, constant questioning of things, being generally disruptive, or what may be described as ‘misbehaving’.  

They could also be showing signs of being withdrawn by staying in their room a lot and not seeing friends, being particularly quiet, and maybe regressed in age appropriate behaviours. If you are concerned about your child, it is important to communicate with your child’s school as staff may also report misbehaviour, difficulties with focussing and concentrating in class or social problems such as falling out with friends.

My child has gotten used to being close to us during lockdown and is worried about being separated from us. Do you have any ideas on how we can help them cope with the separation?

Reassurance is very important, but do not over reassure as your child may then interpret that as confirmation that there is something to worry about! Gentle reassurance and then a distraction after would suffice. Transitional objects can work very well with children, so maybe they could take something small in their school bag or pocket that makes them feel close and remind them of you which would help them to psychologically connect to you whilst at school and hence reassure them.  

It is also good to take the focus off the worry by having fun things to do when they get home from school and the weekends. I always use an evidence base when working with anxiety, to show that when they were worried about X yesterday, and came home and their day went fine, then they have evidence that today would most likely be the same and so would minimise the worry.

children in school

My child lost touch with some of their friends during lockdown and is worried about feeling lonely at school. How can they reach out and feel connected again?

Video calls are a great and safe way to get your children to connect and socialise with their friends again. There are lots of safe social platforms to do this including Facetime, Zoom, What’s App and Skype, and with some of these there is a facility to allow more than two people on a call so a group of friends could catch up together.

Safe socially distanced play dates at the park, or in your back garden if the weather permits are also fun. 

Any form of social connection is good for children as it may help to normalise their worries about returning to school and in turn lessen the worries. It will also help to remind them that probably nothing has changed with their friendships in this otherwise anxious and ever-changing world. Social connection can also help to make plans together for when they return to school, for example meeting their friends on the first day by the school gate. 

My child struggled with anxiety before lockdown and it’s now worse than ever. When is the right time to seek professional help?

Some worries and anxieties are very common and typical for children to have and actually act as a resilience factor to helping them manage day to day life. We should let our children problem solve some worries and support them without jumping in and solving the worries for them.  

However if you are noticing you child is experiencing a lot of distress by these anxieties and this is beginning to affect their socialising (not seeing friends), sleep and/or eating habits, and a lot of disruptive behaviours are being seen, or to the contrary your child is displaying subdued withdrawn behaviours, then I would recommend speaking to a professional. In some cases a discussion and a little direction on how to help is all it needs, in other cases a few sessions of therapy is priceless. 

Top tips for parents to help kids with the transition back to school:

  1. Normalise and reassure. A lot of children will be feeling anxious with the return to school and the changes that may be happening. Sometimes they may feel like they are the only one feeling this worry – reassure them that they are not alone in their thinking and help them to problem solve to make things feel calmer.
  2. Gather information and prepare them for the changes that may lie ahead. This will help them to know what to expect and feel a sense of control over what they can do to feel less anxious and happier in return.
  3. Communication is so important in everything we do. Sit down and talk with your child, find out about their day, the best bits and the things they may have wanted to change. This will help to build a secure relationship with your child and you can then be there to support if it is needed.

Katie Cakirer is a Psychotherapist and founder of Chester Psychotherapy Centre. Her specialism is in child therapy and currently works privately and within school settings.

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (October 2020). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app. 

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Counselling Directory and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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