What to expect when your children go back to school – and how to help them cope

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‘Safety and wellbeing is paramount’
For many parents and children, the prospect of returning to school again in September should be an exciting one, but concerns are natural too. It’s something Munif Zia, principal of Hinde House academy in Sheffield has been working hard to alleviate.

Pupils can now look forward to a more “normal” return, with the easing of restrictions meaning bubbles and social distancing will no longer be mandatory – although such protective steps may be reintroduced in schools where there is a high prevalence of Covid across the whole school. Start and finish times will no longer need to be staggered, and face coverings will no longer be advised – although schools may choose to maintain some of these measures.

Covid testing, however, will remain, with pupils taking two rapid Covid-19 tests (three to five days apart) when they return in September at the start of term, and encouraged to continue to test twice weekly at home. There are huge benefits to testing – it’s quick, offers peace of mind and helps to protect friends and family.

“Everything is a ‘normal’ start in September, but we have behind-the-scenes safety measures in place,” says Zia, who has ensured classroom sanitising stations, deep cleaning and ventilation measures have been maintained. “We’ve learned a lot from the last year,” he says, but it has proved incredibly challenging in practical terms. “Schools just aren’t built for social distancing – the infrastructure makes it really difficult. If anything, school is a place where people join together.”

Munif Zia

For any pupils or parents nervous about the big return, what would he tell them? “Firstly, I understand. Safety and wellbeing is still paramount. I want children and parents to have the peace of mind that no educator would do anything to jeopardise their child’s health, safety or wellbeing. We’re doing everything according to public health guidance – and above that.” Now, the focus has to be on regaining lost learning, with a recovery programme in place.

“We did lots of consultations with parents and our junior leadership team,” says Zia. “If there were any reservations, it’s not about safety, it’s how the school is going to accommodate this recovery programme and get any lost learning back.”

The question is particularly pertinent for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as students with upcoming exams. “We’re here to educate pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have lost out a lot more,” says Zia

“Current year 10s going into year 11 have also now got to prepare for exams and feel very hard done by because they’ve lost out on all of that learning and are wondering how they’re going to recover this time.”

Enthusiasm from pupils so far has been encouraging (and uptake for this year’s summer school has been unprecedented). “For me, this is about lives,” concludes Zia. “I’m absolutely confident there is nothing more we can do to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children in our care.”

‘It’s important to acknowledge this is unusual’
As the new school term looms, it’s normal for both pupils and parents to feel anxious, says Rachel Melville-Thomas, an NHS child and adolescent psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists.

“It is very likely anxieties about returning to school are currently elevated,” she explains. “Children are undergoing change – moving year groups and facing new environments – but within that context of ‘normal’ change, we now have additional change because of the ongoing pandemic.

Research also shows children with pre-existing [in other words ‘pre-pandemic’] mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, have gotten worse thanks to isolation and without the regularities or normalities of school life.”

The impact the pandemic has had on us all shouldn’t be underestimated, she says. “During this period, the part of our brain that spots danger has been on alert, watching out for threat because we’ve been constantly told: ‘You must distance and wear a mask’ etc. When I explain this to children, I say it’s like your inner meerkat is standing up for far longer than it needs to be, meaning our sense of potential alarm is constantly raised.”

Rachel Melville-Thomas

She says it’s important to acknowledge how unusual this is for children and to be tolerant of behavioural changes. “Being difficult is a normal human reaction to transition stress and children don’t necessarily know how to put feelings into words. Obviously, as adults, we aim to be positive, but it’s important we’re allowed to say: ‘This is really weird, isn’t it?’ or ‘Gosh this is all very odd, but there will be lots of things to help us.’

One of the many positives about the easing of restrictions is that it allows children to get back to more of the life they are used to in school.

Even so, it’s not unusual for children’s concentration to suffer following months at home, says Melville-Thomas. “In a situation of elevated vigilance and stress, the brain forgets things because it’s looking out for things to be careful about – it can’t memorise or concentrate as well.” Avoid passing down your own fears around your child’s learning to your child wherever possible, she suggests. “Find other adults to express worries to, like a partner, friends or relatives.”

Focus instead on instilling a sense of perspective to help children navigate those first few weeks back. “Young children can be very black and white, saying things like: ‘I hate school’ or ‘I don’t want to go back.’ Teach children that mixed feelings are normal – life isn’t all ‘great’ or ‘terrible’, there are shades of grey. Parents can help by suggesting: ‘Let’s think of a few things you’re looking forward to and what you’re not looking forward to.’ It’s much more helpful than a dismissive: ‘Stop worrying.’”

If you notice your child is struggling but is reluctant to talk, it can prove useful to try other ways of opening up the conversation. “Sometimes children aren’t very good with words so I often suggest parents use numbers instead,” says Melville-Thomas. For instance, she recommends you could ask your child to rate something out of 10 to get a sense of what’s really happening with them.

“The bottom line is our lives are a mixture of good and bad and it’s important to flag that we shouldn’t fear those ‘down’ parts – we just have to talk about them in order to feel better. As long as adults do some good listening, it can help the child make sense of what’s happening to them.”

‘I’m confident I’m on top of my schoolwork’
Luqaman Khan, 14, is beginning year 10 at Hinde House academy when the autumn term starts in September, after the summer break. He first returned to attending school in March, after various periods of home schooling during the pandemic.

Luqaman says: “I was bored at home during the pandemic, so I’m really happy to be going back into school again in September. [During the lockdowns] I stayed in touch with friends via social media and text, but it’s not the same as being at school together like normal.

Luqaman and Nazakit Khan

“Learning [at home] was more difficult, too, because in person, you can ask your teacher questions during lessons as you go along, which makes you feel more confident about your progress.

“Personally, I don’t have any nerves about returning in September and I feel quite confident about it, especially when it comes to my schoolwork, which I feel on top of. Most students I know are a bit nervous about it though, because there’s some pressure going into year 10 in terms of exams. While everybody feels OK about the classroom and seeing teachers – we all have good connections with them – I think there are nerves around being in a big space again.”

Luqaman’s father, Nazakit, says he’s really relieved schools are easing restrictions further and opening again as normal in September: “We have four boys and a girl [aged 14, 16, 21, 23 and 25] and it’s a relief Luqaman’s not missing out on that important study time. I think the kids will all be a lot happier when they’re back to a more normal way of living.”

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