COVID-19: how to manage back-to-school worries

For most school-age children in the UK, the start of September meant a return to education. However, with the pandemic still affecting our daily lives, many children have found their familiar school has undergone significant change, both in terms of rules, structure and environment.

Going into a new school term can be nerve-racking enough. But for pupils returning during these uncertain times, things may feel overwhelming. As parents, it's important to equip our children with the tools they need to feel confident for their new school year - and this year, that includes helping them to adapt to a new situation and prepare for change.

The school environment

As adults, it will have taken a while to adjust to the new normal. But for children attending a once-familiar school, certain changes may feel difficult to manage. Preparing your child for significant differences in their school routine is a good way of helping them to feel more in control.

"The children need to be prepared for a different routine," agrees headteacher Emma Meadus, of Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate. "For example, we won't be gathering together for whole school assemblies, and they won't be going to the hall to have lunch with several classes."

Instead Coppice Valley school - like many - has made provision for pupils to eat in their classrooms, and participate in virtual assemblies rather than coming together en masse.

To help children prepare more comprehensively for the idea of change, Dr Sharie Coombes, child psychologist, recommends encouraging them to reflect on other times when they've had to overcome change and how they coped. "Add a bit of deliberate reflection on the challenge - it will be interesting to see what we can learn about ourselves and each other and how we adapt to change during this time," she suggests.

Discuss the facts

Your child will have heard about coronavirus from many different sources. Ensuring that they understand the facts, and the situation at the present time, is a way of protecting them whilst ensuring preparedness. "Give them the basic facts without any sensational aspects or 'what ifs'," advises Coombes. "Answer questions honestly and in a matter-of-fact way."

It is likely that others, either deliberately or innocently, may add an element of rumour and conjecture during conversations at school - prepare children for this before it happens by explaining that some people may misunderstand the situation, and encourage them to raise any worries with you as they arise. This will help to avoid their becoming alarmed if rumours circulate!

Expecting disruption

While it's important not to overburden children with all the different scenarios that may occur, chances are that this academic year will be subject to more than its fair share of disruption. As guidance changes, schools may elect to adapt existing plans. Or if a pupil becomes unwell, children may have to spend a period of time working remotely.

Sudden change can be difficult to deal with, so it's important that children are aware of likely disruptions and understand that both parents and schools have contingency plans in place. "It's important to talk to them about all the situations they may need to deal with," agrees Meadus. "As a school, we're going to talk about plans, including what might happen if they need to work remotely."

Offer reassurance

At the same time, it's important to take into account the age of your child and their current level of knowledge of coronavirus before deciding how and what to share with them. While it's not a good idea to leave children in the dark about plans, it's also important not to overwhelm or frighten them. "We have to help the children to understand COVID," agrees Laura Osei, Headteacher of The Eden School, London, "but any conversations should take the stage of the child into account."

Coombes recommends we reassure children that although things may change, adults are monitoring the situation to keep them safe. "Let them know that things will change as we go along but the adults are keeping a careful eye on the situation and will work together to do whatever is needed," she advises.

Stay personally informed

In order to tackle potentially difficult situations and field any tricky questions, it's important as parents that we familiarise ourselves with the policies at our child's school. Most schools will communicate key plans with parents, but if you have any questions there is likely to be further information available to those who ask.

"We've sent set information out to parents," explains Meadus, "but we haven't shared the entire risk assessment as for some parents this may feel overwhelming. But the information is available on our website for those who want or need it."

It's also a good idea to have a plan in place for situations that may arise in family life - for example, if you or your child develop symptoms, or if your child's class is subject to a period of remote working. While we can't plan for every possible scenario, introducing certainty where possible will make a real difference to your child's sense of well-being.

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