Ideasroom

How to take the anxiety out of the return to school

The University of Auckland's Dr Samantha Marsh offers some advice to parents anxious about their children going back to school on Monday 

As we slowly reverse our way out of lockdown, many parents are expressing concern around how the transition back to kindergarten and school will go for their young children. While children will respond differently, there are a number of techniques parents and caregivers can use to make this transition easier. 

All these techniques help to address the underlying issue of connection: a disconnection from their parents and caregivers with whom they have spent all their time in recent weeks (for better or worse), and reconnection with their teachers, who will now step back in to take care of them during the school day.

Start early: The first step is to help reconnect your child with their teacher. It is best to start early, rather than waiting for the night before school goes back. I have been lucky in that my kids’ teachers have been in touch throughout lockdown, sharing stories and songs via WhatsApp. But even if you haven’t had this experience, you can always just talk about your teacher with your child. For example, “I spoke to Mrs Smith on the phone today, and she said she can’t wait to see you again and hear about all the wonderful things you have been doing”. And you can do this even if Mrs Smith hasn’t called. The idea is that you want your child to start reconnecting with their teacher, so it isn’t such a jolt when they are suddenly back at school. 

Consider your relationship with the teacher: Another technique that will help the transition is to ensure that your child thinks you have a good relationship with their teacher. It will be a lot easier for them to trust ‘Mrs Smith’ if they think you trust her … even if you don’t. This is very important so I will repeat it. Even if you don’t have a good relationship with the teacher, it is vitally important that your child trusts that you do. So watch what you say about the teacher around your kid – if it isn’t positive, then consider waiting to say it when little ears aren’t listening. And follow through on those first days back. You may not be able to have physical contact with the teacher, but as best you can, make sure your interaction with them is warm and positive. Your child will be looking to you for cues.

Help your child feel connected to you even when you aren’t there: Your child is going to miss you. This is normal. Don’t push against it. Instead, anticipate it and put in place practical solutions to help your child maintain their connection to you throughout the day. Because even when we are not physically present there are many ways that we can help our children feel that we are still close. Developmental psychologist, Dr Gordon Neufeld, has coined this ‘bridging’. Put simply, the idea is that you want to bridge what separates (rather than focussing on it). So instead of drawing attention to the fact that you are leaving your child and won’t see them for a several hours, focus on the point of the next connection. 

Start telling a story on the way to kindy, and promise to finish it when you pick them up. And make sure you do! My daughter loved hearing about a little fox that lived at my desk. When I picked her up from kindy, the first thing should would ask was “what did little fox do at work today”. A little note/picture/sticker in the lunchbox. A necklace (if your kindy or school allows) that your child can hold on to whenever they miss you throughout the day. Tell your kids that you have the same lunchbox as them, so they should think of mummy/daddy eating their apple when they are eating theirs. Be creative. 

And when it comes to saying goodbye, try not to say “I’m leaving now”. Instead, something that downplays that you are going, and that instead focuses their attention on pick-up time. For example, “I will be back very soon to tell you the rest of that story”. 

Do your best flight attendant impersonation: I’m not a great flyer, but I always feel reassured by the expression on the flight attendant’s face – if they aren’t worried, then neither am I. This is what you are going for when it’s time to say goodbye. As I said earlier, your child will be looking to you for cues. You may be struggling emotionally about leaving them, particularly after you have had them safe at home with you for the past couple of months. But they don’t need to see that - save that for the phone call/coffee after drop off with your partner/mother/friend. Instead, when it is time to say goodbye, you are a sea of calm (at least on the outside). Your child needs to believe they are safe and they will look to you for reassurance.

Final note: Each of these techniques will hopefully help your young child with the transition. But don’t expect miracles. Your child is deeply connected to you. Saying goodbye is going to be hard. But relationship is key. If we can protect the relationship between children and their parents during this difficult time, then we are off to a good start. 

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