We have all felt the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Whilst there has been the physical threat of contracting the disease and the practical changes we’ve had to make such as increased hygiene behaviours and reduced social activities, the virus has also created a great deal of uncertainty and unease. It has been a trying and very difficult time, with many families experiencing great loss and turbulent home lives.
As lockdown is easing and the summer holidays are underway, our attention turns back to the prospect of full time school in September. Some children will not have attended school since mid-March, and so returning to school will present a huge transition period and great change again. Here are some areas to consider when thinking about this for children and some top tips to help you navigate the months ahead.
1. Talk to your children about how they’re feeling
Regardless of the age of the child, communicating with them in an age appropriate way about their feelings and experiences related to coronavirus is a great first step. Ensuring this is a positive, reassuring experience will pave the way for children expressing and exploring their feelings, and give them the social tools they will need for expressing their feelings when they return to school.
For young children, be mindful they may not be able to articulate their feelings in a face-to-face conversation. Therefore think about letting this chat take place during an activity such as a drawing or colouring exercise, where you ask gentle questions about how they are feeling and what they think about lockdown. You could also use emotion cards to help them express how they feel. For children aged 6+ try open ended questions during conversations, or ask them to write a diary entry about life during lockdown or maybe ask them to tell a story about coronavirus. Ensure you let the child lead the conversation, and if they don’t want to engage, that’s okay, maybe try another time.
Make sure you allow them time to think about what’s been said, time to process their own thoughts and time to respond. If they express worries, make sure you don’t dismiss them; these worries need to be acknowledged and channelled. They may be concerned about a family member or friend; you could channel this by helping them write letters you could post to the relative, set up a video call with the friend or keep a picture diary of what the child is doing daily to share with them.
For further advice visit:
Emotions that may arise:
During COVID-19, we have all experienced change and loss, whether this is loss of our personal freedom, loss of social connection and interactions, or the loss of a loved one. It is important to acknowledge this and the consequent feelings of anxiety, stress and maybe frustration in children before school starts. This will give them time to process and come to terms with it all. I’m under no illusion these feelings will go away in time for September, but addressing them in smaller supported groups, such as family units, before school means the child can receive a focused response from a caregiver and the child can express their feelings without the fear of judgement from their peers. Here are some possible emotions which you may need to address:
Issues of bereavement and loss. The reality for most families is they have lost a loved one during lockdown. Grief can induce many emotions such as anxiety, shock, and guilt whilst also affecting sleep patterns, appetites and decision making. It may be difficult, but it is important to talk with children after a bereavement in an honest and open manner so they can express their feelings or worries and be supported. It may also be helpful to reduce their media exposure, and replace this with positive activities for them to focus on.
For further advice:
Anxiety. This can present itself very differently in children and often their age or social capacity will determine how anxiety is expressed. For younger children or those with underdeveloped social skills, they may express anxiety through their behaviours by having angry outbursts, lashing out or withdrawing themselves. This may be difficult to manage as a caregiver, but reflecting about these behaviours may help highlight underlying emotions such as anxiety which can be supported or addressed for the child. Helpful activities to get your child expressing their anxiety positively, could be:
These techniques help children get their anxieties out and put them to one side so they can focus on doing other activities or learning. The worries can then be addressed at a later time with the support of an adult.
For further advice:
2. Help children get ready for school
For secondary school children: This can be practical things such as getting a new Year 7 student a map of their new secondary school and helping them familiarise themselves with it. Also, pupils starting secondary school often report worrying about being bullied. The best help you can offer is encouraging relationships with peers or helping them maintain their current friendships, as this is one of the best protective buffers against bullying (Bollmer, Milich, Harris, & Maras, 2005). Perhaps contact their new school and see if there are any online events with your child’s peers, or if you are a teacher think about organising some introductory events for pupils so they can meet each other before September.
For primary school children: it can be useful to do role play activities of potential scenarios they may face at school. Role play is an important tool to harness with children as it can help them feel prepared and give them the social skills they need for a variety of situations (Goddard, 2019). It may also be useful to read young children starting reception stories relating to experiences at primary school. This technique is often used with children who are autistic or struggle socially, but it is an effective exercise for all children.
Provide children with as much information about their new routine as possible: It might be useful to check your school’s website as many schools are offering online tours, teacher introduction videos or advice videos regarding returning to school. In these videos they often run through the new corona measures put in place, such as social distancing during drop off or pick up, the one way systems or pupils designated entry points for the school. These activities will help them feel more prepared for the practical, social and logistical aspects of school life.
For further advice:
3. Know the warning signs of a struggling child
Being able to recognise the signs of a child who might be struggling will equip you to make any necessary early interventions and could help prevent the child spiralling into other potential issues such as anxiety.
Mentally healthy school recommends looking out for the following, as these might be signs a child is struggling with their transition:
As a teacher, caregiver or parent being aware of the above and sensitive to a child’s emotions, you can help them transition smoothly back into school life. Mentally healthy school also recommends it may be helpful to adopt the following:
For further advice:
4. Encourage Protective factors
These protective factors could help children cope over the coming months and give them a buffer against the stresses they may experience. Here are a few key aspects you may wish to consider when promoting protective factors:
Resilience can be thought of as someone’s ability to bounce back after challenges or adversity. The British Psychology Society uses the following definition of resilience:
Resilience is a brilliant attribute to build in life and will help children during challenging transitions. Eames, Shippen & Sharp (2016) suggest the most important areas to help build resilience are:
With the above in mind it could be useful to actively promote resilience by:
Belonging and Friendships
As discussed before, friendships and feeling like you belong to a social group, are key. Whilst I’m not suggesting you go out and make friends for the child, arranging playdates, writing and posting letters or pictures to friends, or making time for video chats with friends before school to facilitate these friendships would help. Also, reassuring the child they are loved and secure within their family unit will support their sense of belonging. You could do this by creating a family tree or a social network diagram with them to visually show them just how many people love them.
For further advice, visit:
5. Empower them with positive thinking
Corona can feel overwhelming, but empowering children with positive thought and getting them to think beyond COVID-19 can help them.
For some brilliant activity ideas on how to get the positivity flowing, consider:
To get them thinking about a future after COVID-19 you could try:
The hope clouds activity:
Getting them to make a bucket list:
Creating a vision board with them from magazine cut outs and drawings:
Summary of key points
1. Talk to your child about their feelings. Be reassuring, sensitive and ensure you communicate with them in an age-appropriate effective way.
2. Help children get ready for school. Give them practical information, such as explaining what their new routine will be in September, engaging in role play of common school scenarios with them and facilitating friendships.
3. Know the warning signs of a struggling child. Behavioural outbursts may be signs of anxiety. Issues with maintaining friendships or feelings of a lack of belonging are all indicators your child may be struggling.
4. Encourage protective factors. Help your child build resilience by cementing their feeling of belonging within the family and their friends, and help them focus on their strengths.
5. Empower them with positive thinking. Engage in positive activities to make them feel empowered and give them positive goals to focus on beyond COVID-19.
Transitions can be difficult for children, but adopting some of the above advice could help your child navigate school in September and equip them with some brilliant skills for the future. What are your thoughts on the above? Have your children found lockdown difficult? Do you have concerns about returning to school in September? Let us know in the comments below.
Bollmer, J.M., Milich, R., Harris, M.J. and Maras, M.A., (2005). A friend in need: The role of friendship quality as a protective factor in peer victimization and bullying. Journal of interpersonal violence, 20(6), pp.701-712.
Eames, V., Shippen, C. & Sharp, H. (2016). The team of life: a narrative approach to building resilience in UK school children. Educational and Child Psychology, 33(2), 57–68.
Goddard, C. (2019). Home and Away, Best practise in schools Nursery World. https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/media/98823/029_nw_bestpracticeinschool_roleplay.pdf
Masten, A.S. (2014). Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child Development, 85(1), 6–20.