What to expect when your children go back to school â and how to help them cope
âSafety and wellbeing is paramountâ
For many parents and children, the prospect of returning to school again in September should be an exciting one, but concerns are natural too. Itâs something Munif Zia, principal of Hinde House academy in Sheffield has been working hard to alleviate.
Pupils can now look forward to a more ânormalâ return, with the easing of restrictions meaning bubbles and social distancing will no longer be mandatory â although such protective steps may be reintroduced in schools where there is a high prevalence of Covid across the whole school. Start and finish times will no longer need to be staggered, and face coverings will no longer be advised â although schools may choose to maintain some of these measures.
Covid testing, however, will remain, with pupils taking two rapid Covid-19 tests (three to five days apart) when they return in September at the start of term, and encouraged to continue to test twice weekly at home. There are huge benefits to testing â itâs quick, offers peace of mind and helps to protect friends and family.
âEverything is a ânormalâ start in September, but we have behind-the-scenes safety measures in place,â says Zia, who has ensured classroom sanitising stations, deep cleaning and ventilation measures have been maintained. âWeâve learned a lot from the last year,â he says, but it has proved incredibly challenging in practical terms. âSchools just arenât built for social distancing â the infrastructure makes it really difficult. If anything, school is a place where people join together.âMunif Zia
For any pupils or parents nervous about the big return, what would he tell them? âFirstly, I understand. Safety and wellbeing is still paramount. I want children and parents to have the peace of mind that no educator would do anything to jeopardise their childâs health, safety or wellbeing. Weâre doing everything according to public health guidance â and above that.â Now, the focus has to be on regaining lost learning, with a recovery programme in place.
âWe did lots of consultations with parents and our junior leadership team,â says Zia. âIf there were any reservations, itâs not about safety, itâs how the school is going to accommodate this recovery programme and get any lost learning back.â
The question is particularly pertinent for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as students with upcoming exams. âWeâre here to educate pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have lost out a lot more,â says Zia
âCurrent year 10s going into year 11 have also now got to prepare for exams and feel very hard done by because theyâve lost out on all of that learning and are wondering how theyâre going to recover this time.â
Enthusiasm from pupils so far has been encouraging (and uptake for this yearâs summer school has been unprecedented). âFor me, this is about lives,â concludes Zia. âIâm absolutely confident there is nothing more we can do to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children in our care.â
âItâs important to acknowledge this is unusualâ
As the new school term looms, itâs normal for both pupils and parents to feel anxious, says Rachel Melville-Thomas, an NHS child and adolescent psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists.
âIt is very likely anxieties about returning to school are currently elevated,â she explains. âChildren are undergoing change â moving year groups and facing new environments â but within that context of ânormalâ change, we now have additional change because of the ongoing pandemic.
Research also shows children with pre-existing [in other words âpre-pandemicâ] mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, have gotten worse thanks to isolation and without the regularities or normalities of school life.â
The impact the pandemic has had on us all shouldnât be underestimated, she says. âDuring this period, the part of our brain that spots danger has been on alert, watching out for threat because weâve been constantly told: âYou must distance and wear a maskâ etc. When I explain this to children, I say itâs like your inner meerkat is standing up for far longer than it needs to be, meaning our sense of potential alarm is constantly raised.âRachel Melville-Thomas
She says itâs important to acknowledge how unusual this is for children and to be tolerant of behavioural changes. âBeing difficult is a normal human reaction to transition stress and children donât necessarily know how to put feelings into words. Obviously, as adults, we aim to be positive, but itâs important weâre allowed to say: âThis is really weird, isnât it?â or âGosh this is all very odd, but there will be lots of things to help us.â
One of the many positives about the easing of restrictions is that it allows children to get back to more of the life they are used to in school.
Even so, itâs not unusual for childrenâs concentration to suffer following months at home, says Melville-Thomas. âIn a situation of elevated vigilance and stress, the brain forgets things because itâs looking out for things to be careful about â it canât memorise or concentrate as well.â Avoid passing down your own fears around your childâs learning to your child wherever possible, she suggests. âFind other adults to express worries to, like a partner, friends or relatives.â
Focus instead on instilling a sense of perspective to help children navigate those first few weeks back. âYoung children can be very black and white, saying things like: âI hate schoolâ or âI donât want to go back.â Teach children that mixed feelings are normal â life isnât all âgreatâ or âterribleâ, there are shades of grey. Parents can help by suggesting: âLetâs think of a few things youâre looking forward to and what youâre not looking forward to.â Itâs much more helpful than a dismissive: âStop worrying.ââ
If you notice your child is struggling but is reluctant to talk, it can prove useful to try other ways of opening up the conversation. âSometimes children arenât very good with words so I often suggest parents use numbers instead,â says Melville-Thomas. For instance, she recommends you could ask your child to rate something out of 10 to get a sense of whatâs really happening with them.
âThe bottom line is our lives are a mixture of good and bad and itâs important to flag that we shouldnât fear those âdownâ parts â we just have to talk about them in order to feel better. As long as adults do some good listening, it can help the child make sense of whatâs happening to them.â
âIâm confident Iâm on top of my schoolworkâ
Luqaman Khan, 14, is beginning year 10 at Hinde House academy when the autumn term starts in September, after the summer break. He first returned to attending school in March, after various periods of home schooling during the pandemic.
Luqaman says: âI was bored at home during the pandemic, so Iâm really happy to be going back into school again in September. [During the lockdowns] I stayed in touch with friends via social media and text, but itâs not the same as being at school together like normal.Luqaman and Nazakit Khan
âLearning [at home] was more difficult, too, because in person, you can ask your teacher questions during lessons as you go along, which makes you feel more confident about your progress.
âPersonally, I donât have any nerves about returning in September and I feel quite confident about it, especially when it comes to my schoolwork, which I feel on top of. Most students I know are a bit nervous about it though, because thereâs some pressure going into year 10 in terms of exams. While everybody feels OK about the classroom and seeing teachers â we all have good connections with them â I think there are nerves around being in a big space again.â
Luqamanâs father, Nazakit, says heâs really relieved schools are easing restrictions further and opening again as normal in September: âWe have four boys and a girl [aged 14, 16, 21, 23 and 25] and itâs a relief Luqamanâs not missing out on that important study time. I think the kids will all be a lot happier when theyâre back to a more normal way of living.â