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How to manage back-to-school anxiety

With the nation’s schoolchildren poised to go back to school, it’s a tense time for everyone. So, how, as parents, should we control our fears? Muddy finds out.

Do they need to wear masks? Will they really keep one metre away from their friends? What happens if they *gasp* bring home someone else’s jacket by mistake? These questions, plus many, many more, are racing through every parent’s head as the start of school looms. Because – let’s be honest – none of us have had to deal with school vs. a global pandemic before so it’s uncharted territory for everyone. So we decided to speak to three experts on the topic to find out how they think we should square up to the challenge.

Family Happiness Consultant Poppy Abs offers her top tips on handling those back to school nerves. You can book Poppy’s bespoke support via her website www.familyhappiness.co.uk

In terms of considerations for the Autumn term, stability, predictability and empathy are key for kids after the bizarre few months they’ve had:

Accept that some children will not want to go back to school. Six months is a long time away from the classroom and most children have thrived with the lack of pressure and the increased time spent with family. If home education is an option for you then look into it, there are myriad benefits.  In families where school is the only choice parents must understand why their kids are worried or upset about a return to formal education and be empathetic.

Ensure that you have all the information regarding the changes that will be in place once school returns and that your children understand what will be different. If you are unsure of anything get in touch with the school and be persistent – keep asking until you are all informed and comfortable. It is the school’s responsibility to look after the children’s physical and emotional wellbeing while they are in loco parentis, they must show you how they plan to do this.

Speak to your children about their concerns. Some children will be worried about catching coronavirus or passing it on to vulnerable family members. Others will be worried about the restrictions on their movement and behaviour, how they will play with their friends or receive a cuddle from a teacher if they are sad or scared. All these concerns are valid. 

It is likely that there will be much less face-to-face contact between parents and school staff so find out how you will maintain communication if there is no recourse to a quick chat by the classroom door. If your child is struggling to adapt to the new normal be sure to keep their teacher informed – children are remarkably good at masking their worries at school.

The children will be exhausted. This is always the case in September, but it will be even more so after a long break and with new rules to follow. Cut them some slack if unwanted behaviours increase while they adjust to being back at school: this will take several weeks.

Take nutritious snacks for pick-up time and plan an outside run around after school. After-school restraint collapse will be in hyperdrive as children process new rules and do their best to follow them all day. You are their safe space and they need to be able to let out the big emotions they have been holding in all day, outdoor play and level blood sugars will help enormously. www.familyhappiness.co.uk

Joanna Burridge is a fully qualified counsellor, based in Somerset, who specialises in anxiety.

“I’m a mother too. I’ve got a teenager returning to college and I’ve been shielding so anxiety has been quite a thing for me personally as well as for my clients. First of all, I  would say it is entirely understandable and normal to feel anxious. Because from the start of lockdown to pretty much now, the messages have been to stay indoors, stay home, stay safe, stay away from everybody and from this invisible thing. Psychology wise, it’s put us in our threat system and thousands of years ago, when we were defending ourselves from wild animals, this threat system would keep us safe. It’s a primitive part of our brain and it’s probably on an uber drive at the moment because we’re feeling really threatened but we can’t see that threat, so we’re on high alert. However, when we’re on high alert, cortisol and adrenaline are racing through our bodies and our brains. And that produces knee-jerk reactions to things. We’re not able to think rationally, we’re not able to access our rational minds. So when I’m working with clients, we work on trying to get out of that threat system and get into a soothing system. 

Grounding is good to distract an anxious mind. Grounding techniques – things we can touch, see or smell, for instance – get all our senses involved. If you engage your senses, you can be more present and not leap ahead and catastrophise. Our anxious minds tend to be more concerned about what’s going to happen in the future but the more we can bring ourselves back to the here and now, the better. Grounding can distract, calm anxiety and helps release oxytocin. For children who are anxious, often just a little Lego minifigure in their pocket to hold onto or a tissue with their mum’s perfume on can be really helpful. For parents, just being aware of our breathing is a good one. We shouldn’t try and breathe in any particular way or force anything, just be aware of how we feel in our bodies. Or try activities that are relaxing and engaging. Mindful colouring is a good thing to do, baking, anything that absorbs your attention and doesn’t give your mind a chance to spiral into deeper anxiety.

And we need to be kind to ourselves rather than listening to our critical voice that says, ‘Oh, stop being pathetic’ or ‘Stop making a fuss’. Remember, it’s really understandable that we’re feeling so anxious right now because we love our children and we want to keep them safe. That’s our primary role as parents. We genuinely would do everything we can to protect them so it’s going to make that primal response kick in. Be reassured by that. If you’re anxious, remember, it makes perfect sense.”

Find Joanna XX at Welldoing.com or at her personal website www.jbcounselling.org

William Phelps is the headteacher of The Beacon School, an independent prep school for boys in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire. 

“The top thing is about communication. Every school needs to have produced a risk assessment plan and this has to be published so everyone has an opportunity to understand all the things that are being done to try and reduce the onset of infection in our schools. Our school has put in place socially distanced classrooms, hand sanitising, flow in shared spaces so we know which way to walk – all of those procedures that we need to teach the children in a clear and calm way. But you’ve got to have courage to get out of the car and join the team and that applies to the child and the parents. And it’s important for parents to feel the school is on their side and the only way you do that, ultimately, is being steadfast and true. You have to consistently communicate to say, ‘We’re getting there and we’re doing this,’ and showing the details behind all the plans.

So, for me as headmaster, it’s been about looking at the little details that affect our school and situation and trying to mitigate the dangers wherever we can. For instance, if you don’t have a large amount of movement in your school, you don’t really need masks. You can arrange your curriculum, as I have, where your children don’t move classrooms – the teachers come to them and that reduces the need for masks. But it’s a very fluid situation and you make changes as the situation unfolds. For instance, our pupils normally come to school in black shoes but I’ve said come in trainers because then you don’t have to change shoes to do games, which reduces the level of potential infection. And we have a very traditional school blazer which is dry clean only. I want parents to wash the uniform every week, so we’re ditching the blazer until we know we’re in full control of this virus.

If you are anxious about your child’s fears, I would say that what a child wants from their parent is for them to be honest and authentic. There’s no hiding from this virus: they’d have watched endless news articles, seen their parents worried, they’ve been through lockdown. You have to be honest with them and get them to understand their responsibility in coming back to school. You have to say, ‘This is what’s at school, this is why we are doing it and will you please follow that instruction.’ That is the key.”

Sarah Rayner is the author of Making Friends With Anxiety which is available on Amazon or via her website www.sarah-rayner.com.

“A massive trigger for anxiety is that feeling of panic about what’s going to happen in the future. And obviously in terms of schools, what I’m hearing is: ‘What’s going to happen if there’s a Covid-19 outbreak in school?’, ‘What if they close the school again?’ and ‘What if my child gets it and they get bad symptoms?’ If people are getting into that sort of mental state, I would suggest trying to pull themselves back into thinking one day at a time. Just take it slower. For instance, just think, ‘Right, today, we’re going to school.’ Thinking ahead to three months’ time and panicking about how to manage the kids at home or if the economy will collapse is in no way beneficial. So try and bring yourself back to the present. If I’m having a really anxious day, sometimes I just take it an hour at a time and see where I’m at come 10am. For instance, you might think: ‘All I’ve got to do in the next hour is get the kids on the school bus and I can hide under the duvet after that.” But normally, if you get that far, you don’t need your duvet an hour later.

The trouble with anxiety is that it’s self-perpetuating. You worry about something, it sends all your ‘fight or flight’ hormones into overdrive and that just makes the situation worse in your brain. The more you can make friends with the situation rather than fight it, the quicker you can lessen the physical reaction, which is better for you. That comes from understanding that anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction, it’s an ancient part of the brain that is just reacting in the way it’s designed to in order to protect us. So recognise you feel anxious, accept those feelings, see them for what they are and you can calm things down.

Another useful tip is to make changes gradually. Instead of saying, ‘Right, I’ve got to send my kids back to school with every piece of homework they’ve been set on lockdown and ensure they anti-bac every 20 minutes and not touch any surfaces’, just think about what you can achieve today, which may well be: ‘I’m going to dress them in their uniform and get them through the school gate’. And tomorrow, you might feel you can achieve a little more. Take each day as an accomplishment and recognise those accomplishments. Say, ‘Oh, wow! We did that. We managed to get through that.’ Because a lot of people have been at home and in control of their environment and now they’re having to venture forth again and put themselves in contact with a lot of people. So keep expectations manageable and don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to be perfect. Give yourself a break: being good enough is all you can ever be.”

Find more ideas here

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