Back to school blues: Get pupils ready for classroom changes

Beat Covid-19 anxiety and play role in your child’s positive back-to-school transition

Crisp new shirts, smudge-free copies and a belly full of butterflies are the key ingredients for that first day back to school.

This year, however, there will be an additional component behind the excitement of the new school year. For many, both parent and child, this day may now include an additional pinch of anxiety.

While there are still unknowns about the logistics of school reopening, there are many ways in which parents can prepare their child for the return to the classroom.

1. Get reacquainted

School is a very social space and it is important that children are reintroduced to socialising with other children before they return.

Nóirín Hayes, expert in early childhood education at Trinity College, says children may become overwhelmed with the social aspect of school when they return if they have not met friends since March.

“I certainly would encourage play dates within the boundaries of the guidelines because socialising on Zoom calls and social media is a bit different,” says Hayes.

"Organise play dates with the other children from your child's class so that the children are getting reacquainted with each other," says Marian Quinn, chief executive of the Childhood Development Initiative. "If you are not happy to have children in your home then go the park so that your child is seeing other children and has the opportunity to play with other children in the playground."

Many children will have spent a lot of time in close proximity to their parents and it will be important for them to begin to spend some time apart from their parents before they return to school.

“We know that there are lots of children who have not left their parents’ side for months,” says Quinn. “So, for those, there is going to be a real concern about separation anxiety.”

This anxiety is as much a concern for the parent as it is for the child. “Some parents I know have relished the opportunity to be at home with the little ones in a way that they would never have been able to do, so they are going to miss being with their child every day,” says Quinn.

She recommends having time apart from your child if possible. “Start looking to see if your child can go and stay with a friend for an hour. Gently start to have some time apart.”

2. Talk the talk

Never before has the topic of “back to school” been so robustly discussed and by so many, but including the children in the conversation can help ease any concerns they may have.

“As parents what we need to do is talk to them about all the positives and the great things that will be there when they return to school, or indeed if it is their first time,” says Quinn.

It is also important to be mindful of the conversations you may be having around the children.

“Even if the children aren’t involved in the conversation, they are listening and they pick up on things like tone and body language in a way that we often underestimate in children,” says Quinn.

“Children will pick up if we are anxious about them returning to school from the conversations that we have.”

Clodagh Carroll, assistant director of children's services at Barnardos, suggests suggests talking to your child about what may be different and acknowledging the worries they may have.

“Talking to them and helping them understand that things that might be different will help,” says Carroll, “let them know it is okay for them to have worries and how they can talk to you about them.”

3. Walk the walk

Whether it is your child’s first day at primary school or they are returning for another year, walking the route to school before they return can help prepare them (and you) and ease the first day nerves.

“Before they go back to school do the route with them,” says Carroll, “Little rituals like buying the lunch box or school bag signify a positive about getting ready to go back to school.”

Hayes suggests looking at photos of the school or classroom on the school website and talking about the logistics of where they might stand in line.

“Attending to the physical realities and the physical health and safety is something that we can all relate to,” says Hayes.

4. Trust the teachers

“What we have to do is trust our professionals to be professional and do the job that they were trained to do,” says Quinn.

If you have noticed any concerning behaviour or are worried about a developmental delay, it is important to communicate this with the class teacher promptly.

“Let the school know. It is so much easier for them if they know in advance,” she says.

Some parents may be concerned about the re-emergence of school-refusal behaviours.

“If you’re worried about school refusal, link in with the school as soon as you can and flag it,” says Carroll. “Find a teacher that had a good relationship with your child to encourage them back. Connect your child back in with that teacher before school starts to relieve that stress and anxiety.”

5. Catch-up concerns

Many parents may have concerns about children’s need to “catch up” academically, but Hayes explains that the first month of school should be viewed differently this time around.

“We need to allow children time and space,” says Hayes “Of course children will be expecting to be learning things and to be taught but there needs to be a certain flexibility. Parents shouldn’t be disturbed if their children aren’t coming home with the same level of homework. It is no harm to think about the first month as a settling-in period.”

6. Remain vigilant

While the return to school may go more smoothly than expected, Hayes says it is important for parents and teachers to be aware that issues may not present themselves straight away.

“For many children there really is just the excitement of going back,” says Hayes. “So the issues may not happen in the transition.”

She says it is important for parents to be mindful of changes in behaviour or sleep patterns that may happen in the weeks that follow the initial back-to-school period.

7. Self-care

“Self-care as a parent is one of the things that helps us be as good a parent as we can be,” says Quinn. “Being good to myself is not a selfish act.”

She explains that it is really important for parents to take time for themselves. “It is what enables me to be the best parent I can be.”

Carroll says it is important for parents to acknowledge how hard this has been for them. “There is something about parents saying “It’s okay, I did my best.”

Back to school nerves? Useful resources

- Heart, Body and Mind: This Barnardos resource focuses on emotional regulation, and helps introduce relaxation habits and thought awareness. The section that focuses on parental wellbeing reminds parents of the importance of self-care.

- Bridge Back to School: Autism charity AsIAm, in conjunction with Mary Immaculate College and Supervalu, has developed a booklet with activities that focus on social and communication skills, self-regulation and preparing for the return to schools.

- Mo Scéal: This transition resource pack is available on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment website and helps parents and children share information about their learning and development with their junior infant teacher.

- Ready for School: This resource is available on the website and has advice and guidance for parents on how to prepare for and what to expect on that first day of school.