Like many parents across the UK, I am both eagerly and anxiously awaiting the start of the new school year in September. When I ask Dylan (aged seven, going into Year 3) and Charlie (aged five, going into Year 1) how they feel about returning to school, I’m most often met with an indignant “boring!”
I find this a little funny given that we’ve all been bored senseless over the last five months, but I know this answer perhaps hides how anxious they’re feeling about returning to school after such a long lockdown. My eldest in particular gets quite anxious about social situations, and finds his school work very difficult.
Sometimes I try to put myself in his shoes and imagine what it would be like going back to these pressures after five months away during which he and his brother have pretty much done whatever they want (aside from basic lessons in English and Math to keep things ticking over.) It’s hard to talk to him about it though as he won’t often open up, so I’ve been doing some research and thinking about how I can help him with the transition out of our little cocoon and back to the school gates.
Anxiety in children during lockdown
I know full well from my own experience at school how nerve-wrecking that September return to school can be, especially for someone who already suffers with anxiety. As an anxious child I saw those heavenly six weeks of summer as a much-needed break from having to talk to people all the time, trying to fit in, and generally putting up an exhausting charade every moment I was at school.
During the summer holidays I would see only a handful of friends, but most of my time was spent on my own replenishing my tank which, as an introvert, was always running empty by mid-July. I certainly didn’t challenge myself in any way to overcome my shyness, instead happily absorbing the quiet and stillness of my little bedroom.
Because I actively avoided anything which might bring me face to face with my crippling anxiety, I missed out on learning vital skills in how to tackle it, or at least cope with it when that inevitable return to school came. So my anxiety just kept on growing, subdued for the time being but ready to emerge raging in September.
During this lockdown period, Dylan has been on only four (socially-distanced) playdates outside; two of them were with school friends and two were with children of mine and my husband’s friends. We’ve only recently started to venture out to more public places, and each time he questions why we’re leaving the house and whether we should be doing it. “Is it safe mum?”, he asks.
There is a general reluctance to leave the house from both of the boys now; with Charlie I think it’s more laziness than anything (he’s much more laidback than Dylan), but for Dylan I’m sure it’s his anxiety resurfacing now that the walls of this little castle we’ve built are slowly coming down.
Preparing for the great school return
Like many families I’m sure, the four of us have fallen into bad habits over these last few months. My husband has been furloughed since March whilst I work at home, so we’ve all been together constantly, and the lack of structure to our days and general winging-it have resulted in late wake ups and bedtimes. Dylan has frequently stayed up until 10pm, something we never would have allowed during school term time.
As well as trying to get back into a more normal routine, over the last few weeks I’ve also made sure to talk very positively about their return to school, for example, pointing out that they’ll get to see friends again that they haven’t seen for so long, as well as their lovely teachers.
Whilst Charlie insists that he hasn’t missed anyone and isn’t bothered about seeing his classmates again, Dylan has perked up slightly at the thought of this; however, his interest is quickly overshadowed by anxious thoughts about how things will work and how much harder the Year 3 work will be than in Year 2.
Another piece of advice I read was about giving the boys information about what they can expect when they return. We recently received an email from their school outlining all the arrangements for September and it didn’t even occur to me to actually share that information with them. I guess I wanted to shield them from it and was unsure whether it would just make them even more anxious about returning to school knowing of all the changes they’ll face. But after some thought I realised that not knowing what’s coming up can sometimes be more anxiety-inducing than knowing, and I think that might be the case for Dylan.
We’re also going to attempt a ‘fun’ trip to buy new school uniform, pencil cases and lunch boxes etc; no doubt the ‘fun’ will be rapidly overshadowed by their aching boredom after we’ve been in the shop less than five minutes, but we’ll attempt it nonetheless.
“But what about the virus mummy?”
Our children’s concerns about this nasty virus they know we’ve spent five months avoiding are valid and we must acknowledge them. But most importantly we need to reassure them that the situation is safer and all necessary precautions are being taken by their school. I’ve read that it’s important to acknowledge that the virus is still around, but emphasise that they are unlikely to catch it with all the safety precautions in place and even if they do they will most likely be fine.
My husband and I have also shared positive news stories about vaccine development with the boys, highlighting the fact that our society is working to eradicate the virus or at least deal with it effectively. Obviously we haven’t shared everything we see on the news with them; a little harmless omission and giving age-appropriate answers to their questions are definitely advisable with young children I think.
Other than that, we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing for the last five months and take each day at a time, making sure to check in with the kids regularly to see how they’re feeling about things and answer any questions. We might not have the perfect answers, but at least we’ll be communicating, which is the most crucial thing.
I’d love to hear from other parents how you’re preparing anxious children for returning to school after lockdown. Let me know in the comments so we can all help each other with what might be one of the most important parenting tasks we’ve faced for some time!