Managing your child’s transition back to school

With schools returning to on-site learning, Professor Brett McDermott, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, provides advice for parents and carers on how to best support their child through the transition, with a focus on those caring for primary school-aged children.

As a parent, it’s natural to feel apprehensive about how well your child is going to transition after spending so much time at home. Many children will have enjoyed remote learning, and some will be feeling anxious about returning to school.

McDermott says it’s important to keep in mind that it’s natural for children to be unsettled by the thought of another big change.

“Feelings of anxiety and sadness are completely normal right now. For many children, it’s like the first day of school all over again. They’ve also just had all this time at home with mum and dad (or caregivers), so it’s tough for that to come to an end,” says McDermott.

Avoid oversharing with your children

To help lower your child’s feelings of anxiety around going back to school, McDermott says “parents need to try and remember that anxiety can be contagious. Understandably, parental anxiety is high right now, but children need to be shielded from their parent’s worries as much as possible. So, save adult conversations for adult time.”

According to McDermott, children aged between 10-13 years-old are the most anxious after things such as a natural disaster, primarily because they tend to be – albeit unwittingly – exposed to too much information.

“Little ones tend to be protected from things as parents will avoid talking about important issues in front of them. By those middle years this often changes. Not only to they tend to be more exposed to the news, social media, and adults chatting more openly in their presence, they also have very good imaginations, so they can envisage bad outcomes.”

For tips on how to talk to children about traumatic news events go here.

What you can do to help

Fortunately, there’s plenty parents and carers can do to help their children feel less anxious about going back to school.

Discuss plans as early as possible. McDermott suggests openly discussing the return to school early on, including why and how it might feel different to normal. In doing so, he advises you to be upbeat but matter of fact.

“Getting across that it’s business as usual and modelling this with positive words and behaviour will help set the tone,” says McDermott.

Get back into the usual routine. When you have a return date set, planning to get back into your usual school routine as swiftly as possible is likely to help.

If your child is not already back at school, McDermott recommends starting getting ready for normal school days anyway, including setting the alarm, eating breakfast together, dressing in school uniform or doing whatever you would normally do.

Use incentives and highlight the positives of returning to the school grounds. For example, you might organise for a school friend to come by in the morning on the first day back so they can go in together, or arrange a playdate after school with their best friend/s.

Tell them you’re confident in them. Remind your child that they’ve already shown great resilience and adaptability during this challenging time, and that you have full confidence in their ability to do it again.

Regularly check in with your child and ask them how they’re feeling, what they’re enjoying, and what might not be working so well. Help your child find solutions to any issues they might be having. Supporting your child in becoming confident in problem-solving will help them build resilience.

Schools and educators are there to help

Remember that the school and its educators are there to support your child’s transition.

“Linking up closely with your child’s school and talking to their teacher is a great idea. They may also have a school counsellor or psychologist, as well as many other wonderful resources,” he says, adding that if your child needs further help to overcome their anxiety, to contact your GP.

To assist with their confidence, ensure your child knows who to go to at school if they need support, and encourage them to recognise and name their feelings.

Children with existing mental health conditions

Adjusting to ‘normal’ life once school has resumed may be particularly challenging if your child has an existing mental health condition. Staying at home may have been a safe bubble for them, and they may, understandably, feel very reluctant to leave it.

In this case, McDermott suggests paying close attention to them during the transition back to school.

“Whether they need to see their counsellor or psychologist regularly during this time, or go back and talk to their GP to establish next steps, the key thing is to avoid a relapse or the worsening of an existing condition.”

This content is proudly funded by one of Beyond Blue’s Major Partners, Future Generation Global Investment Company.

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