Returning to school in September is typically a time of mixed emotions for many families – the end of long, lazy summer days surrounded by friends and family. It also marks the return of early starts, structure, the after school dash between clubs, activities and fixtures and, of course, homework. From bare feet to shiny new shoes, it’s a time of adjustment in every sense. For this term, it is likely that these feelings will be further intensified by the fact that a number of children have not been at school since late March. The normal uncertainties, and frisson of excitement that heralds the start of a new school year, will be accentuated by the new unpredictability which influences how we now live.
So how best can you prepare your child for the start of this new school year? As ever, the advice which follows is no more than common sense. Whenever we think about how best to support our children at times of change we should look to ensure the basics are in place first: sleep, nutrition, play and individual attention. These four areas are as significant for your teenager as they are for your four year-old starting school for the first time. Here are my ten suggestions:
1. In the days leading to the return to school, and in the early weeks of term, re-establish a good bedtime routine. This is always important at the end of a long summer but even more so now. Many children will have less stamina than usual, either because they have been more sedentary than normal over the last few months or because the stimulation of school is overwhelming after many weeks off.
2. Make sure you have given your child plenty of opportunities to ask any questions they might have. Be honest if you don’t know the answer, and look for solutions together. Make time each day for each child in the family individually. Older children may be embarrassed by their anxieties and questions, and will not want to raise them in front of other siblings.
3. Talk positively and with a ‘lightness of touch’ about the start of term. Again, children will know if you are being over-enthusiastic! Talk about the positives such as the rekindling of friendships, and the restarting of activities and lessons that you know your child enjoys. If you have any fears or concerns of your own, try not to let the children pick up on them. Children have a great radar for parental anxiety and if you are worried the chances are your children will become worried too.
4. Don’t forget the obvious ‘back to school’ things – uniform, shoes, water bottles, stationery. Bear in mind your children may have enjoyed the weeks of bare feet and soft shorts – if you have a child who is sensitive to the feeling of new uniform, take time to get the right size, rather than sizing up, and wash new shirts a few times first to soften them up.
5. Make sure your children understand the arrangements for getting to and from school, especially if this is something that has changed with new procedures in place for social distancing. If your child hasn’t been at school for some time, try to drive or walk past it, just to help remind them of where it is and what it looks like. Seeing familiar buildings can be strangely reassuring.
6. Spending more time at home and seeing less of their friends may well have had an impact on your child’s social confidence. Don’t push them into optional activities initially, be guided by their pace.
7. Not all children will have disliked lockdown or remote learning. A good number may well have preferred it, and be sad to see things returning to normal. Try not to dismiss this perspective. Ask them to explain what they preferred and see if you can make small adjustments to your old routines. Perhaps they have enjoyed eating as a family together during the week – or relished the quiet study over the noisy classroom as a place to work?
8. Be prepared for a little bit of emotional fall-out. Provide extra reassurances, cuddles, time and patience as your children adapt. Remember that the last six months have been odd for many adults, and yet we can take a much longer perspective. For a young child, these last few months have been a significant proportion of their lives.
9. With life being more unpredictable at the moment, try to create goals with your children for the term ahead that are achievable. Try not to focus on events that may risk being cancelled – such as that long looked forward to residential trip. Try instead to help them focus on more personal goals, that they can take their own responsibility for.
10. Downplay the changes that may be in place at school. Children are pretty tuned in to increased hand washing and 'bubbles' of children at school. Rather than guess what might be happening, reassure the children that the school will have all the arrangements in hand and that – as always on the first day of a new school year – everything will be explained to them.
Most children should adapt to school life again relatively quickly. But as ever, should that not be the case don’t hesitate to get in touch with your child’s form teacher. And finally, remember that all children are different – the approaches that may help one child may not be helpful for another. If in doubt about the best way to support them, just focus on ensuring they feel loved and listened to and you won’t go too far wrong.