Setting the Stage for Return to School:
In the best of times, returning to school after a long break can be hard. In light of our hybrid learning environment, the return to school full time with a larger classroom of students might pose a few more challenges, especially for younger students. Caregivers and children may have many questions, thoughts and mixed feelings about the idea of returning to school.
Finding the way forward together involves setting a calm tone of optimism and adaptability. Your positive attitude and willingness to be flexible will model for your child skills needed through life as they face unique challenges.
Helpful Information and Suggestions
Moving toward the use of “Calm Language” and away from the language of fear and safety will benefit children. When adults feel prepared and can communicate calmly and with confidence, they can help children feel calm and secure.
● You do not need to have all the answers, you just have to be ready to respond to your child’s questions and needs. Parents and caregivers are natural caretakers, so you’ve got this!
● Instead of telling children that they will be okay, tell them they will be taken care of. Being “okay” is different for every person -children who are nervous or anxious will find many ways to argue that they will not be okay. Logic often will not solve the worry, but it is harder for kids to argue the point that someone will take care of them
● Parents can point their younger children toward the “caregivers” at school with positive messages like these: “These are the people I have chosen to take care of you,” “Your teacher is looking forward to seeing you,” “Your teacher will take care of you.”
● Lead with confidence – meet children’s needs, not their demands. Children need support and encouragement, but sometimes the things they say and do come across as demands that adults think they need to respond to. For example, your child might cry and say they are not going to school. What they need is for you to take the lead by telling them you believe in them and that they will be able to handle what they have to do.
● Before and after school, listen with full attention and have some fun (be playful!) – these things deepen your connection with your child.
What Comfort can I offer my Child at this time?
Instead of asking, “Will the return to school cause anxiety?”, it would be more helpful to ask, “What can be done if my child feels nervous or anxious?” Remember, your connection with your child is like a “force field” around your child’s heart – remind your children that you are always thinking of them when you are apart.
● You can ask your child to imagine that there is an invisible string between them and you, which does not break when you are apart.
● Food is often a sign of home and comfort. In the first days of school, you might want to put a favorite item in your child’s lunch as a reminder of your connection.
● You could put a small picture in your child’s lunch bag, which they will see at lunch or snack times
● You could also put in a little note to your child to let them know you hope the day is going well
● Accept the feelings your child has, no matter how silly they seem
● Reassure children their feelings are not a problem, that they are normal, and they are to be expected
● Make room for children’s feelings rather than trying to get rid of them, e.g., by constantly comforting or reassuring them
● Remember – tears are okay -crying is the body’s way of releasing tension
● Help your child to set good intentions for the day such as, “Can I count on your to follow the handwashing routines at school, keep distance between you and your friends at recess and ask your teacher for help if you feel upset about the new rules?” Think about using play to teach kids new rules and routines. Using playful approaches to learn new ways of doing things will be less alarming and much less likely to result in resistance. Not to mention, having fun and laughing helps to release tension!
● Using the term “health precautions” rather than safety measures speaks directly to the “good health” measures that Public Health officials have been recommending
● Give children positive messages about how well they coped with the stay-at-home time
● Remind children that they came through that time in spite of hard things they had to deal with, earning a badge of honor for a job well-done
Keep it positive
As your children are preparing for the first day of school, keep the process as positive as possible. Encourage your child to think positively about school. When your child is feeling nervous or upset, it is normal for them to have unhelpful thoughts: “I don’t want to go back to school! I can’t go because it is too scary!”
Help your child notice and identify unhelpful thoughts. Thoughts are like traffic lights: Red thoughts are unhelpful and make us feel stressed and worried. Red thoughts stop us from moving forward and doing what we want or need to do. Green thoughts are helpful and can make us feel brave and confident. Green thoughts keep us moving forward to achieve new skills and goals. Play the traffic light game to change red thoughts and green thoughts.
For example, the following statement recognizes the scary thought, but adding the second, “green sentence, helps to move things forward: “I am scared about going to school. But I can take it one step at a time to help me feel better.”
Explain to your children that we can practice taking charge of our own thoughts by playing the traffic light game. Give examples of thought statements and practice identifying red thoughts and changing them into green thoughts. For example, “I’m not getting any better at this!” can be changed to “I will get better at this if I give it another try.”
Mindfulness, breathing and muscle relaxation
Although we all feel nervous sometimes, we can find clever ways to keep a calm state of mind and body. Practicing mindfulness, breathing and relaxation strategies will result in familiarity and mastery. When faced with big emotions, children can then access their new skills to help them return to a calm state. Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment rather than worrying about what might happen next. Grounding is a way to focus on the here and now by observing things in our environment while using our five senses. Ask your child to turn on their spidey-senses just like spiderman uses his sense of sight, smell, hearing and touch to keep tabs on the world around them. Ask your child to notice five things they see around them, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste.
Deep breathing strategies
Slow, deep breathing can help us relax and manage the anxiety caused by stressful events. With deep breathing, we can calm our bodies and clear our minds to help us prepare for the task ahead:
● Imagine breathing in deeply to smell a flower and breathe out to blow out candles on a birthday cake.
● Imagine a batch of cookies coming out of the oven. As you breathe in, smell those yummy cookies! But they’re hot, so blow on them to cool them down.
● Imagine a calm color as you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
When feeling worried, our bodies may respond with tense muscles. With practice, children can learn the difference between stressed and relaxed muscles. At the first sign of muscle tension and worried feelings, your child can then work towards relaxation.
Play relaxation games such as:
● Robot and Ragdoll Body: After holding their body tight like a robot, have your child shake out their body like a flopsy ragdoll.
● Rocks and Socks: Ask your child to bring their hands into tight fists, squeezing their big emotions into rocks. Then ask your child to relax their hands into floppy socks, letting go of the tension they just felt.