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Is your child worried about going to school? An expert has some tips for parents

Many children, and parents, are anxious about schools reopening.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/maxbelchenko

PARENTS SHOULD SIT down with their children to discuss any concerns they have about starting school for the first time or returning to the classroom after months of homeschooling during the Covid-19 pandemic, an expert has advised.

Psychologist Dr Vincent McDarby said some parents may avoid this type of discussion because they are anxious themselves or don’t realise how concerned their child is.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, McDarby said parents or guardians may be unintentionally projecting their own anxiety onto their children, and the best way to stop this from happening is to explain the situation and listen to any questions their children have.

“The very first thing you need to look at is always the parents’ anxiety itself because a child starting school for the first time, completely understandably, causes a degree of upset and anxiety for a parent, it’s a big milestone.

“And that anxiety is significantly heightened at the moment because there’s so much uncertainty. The guidance isn’t fully clear yet, schools don’t seem to be fully clear on how they’re going to manage. Different schools have different things in place and this understandably causes anxiety for parents,” McDarby said.

The psychologist noted that young children often determine if a situation is stressful or frightening based off how their parents react to it.

“The way young children determine what are threats in their life is to look to adults, they look to important adults in their life and take signals from them, and for young children it’s parents.

“The analogy that I would use is that if I’m on a flight and there’s turbulence, the first thing I do is I look at the air hostess – if they’re calm, I’ll relax again. If there’s turbulence, and I see the air hostesses run for oxygen masks or whatever I’m going to panic.

“Young children are the same. What we often forget about is that young children spend so much time watching parents that they’re very aware when there are changes. When we get anxious, even when we to try and hide it, there are subtle changes in our tone of voice, our body language and presentation.

“And the people who are most likely to pick up on that are our children because they spend so much time watching us because they learn from modelling our behaviour. They know when something isn’t right, they know something is off here, mammy or daddy are not behaving as I would expect, this is potentially a threatening environment.

“So the first thing for parents is to try and look at your own anxiety because children will feed off that. For children just starting school now or for children in older classes, that would be the first thing that you look at.”

He added that most parents will already be doing this but it’s important to ensure children are back into a normal sleep and eating routine before starting school, something that may have been disrupted in recent months.

Their questions are not trivial

McDarby said the best way to reduce anxiety in children is “being able to help them understand what’s happening”, adding that “uncertainty causes anxiety”. Many schools will have sent information to parents about the guidelines and what will be different this term.

Parents should go through this information and then explain to their children how pods and other measures will work, McDarby advised. He added that parents should answer whatever questions their children have, and not brush them off as trivial.

“Children have a lot of questions that we often overlook, things like, ‘What happens if I want to go to the toilet? What happens if I get sick?’ We may think these are only small things, but it’s really important to answer them.

“Some of the questions may seem trivial or off the wall, but they are very concerning to children. And we also need to validate their worries because we have a tendency with young children to dismiss their worries because a lot of their worries, to us, seem trivial.

“So we will say things like, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s going to be fine’, but this isn’t really effective.”

coronavirus-tue-aug-25-2020 File photo of a schoolchild wearing a face mask on a bus in England. Source: PA Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

McDarby said parents and guardians should listen to children’s concerns and talk about them. If they are scared about being in pods, for example, let them explain why. Helping a child process the worry is more effective than just telling them it will be fine, without giving any detail as to how, McDarby said.

Social interaction 

A child starting school for the first time can be a stressful situation in general for both child and parent, let alone during a global pandemic, but McDarby said children are often more resilient than we realise.

“It’s a huge experience for them, it causes a degree of anxiety. A lot of children are upset for the first few days – separating from mum and dad – which is completely normal,” he said.

“You usually have the issue where the children will get upset, which upsets the parents. When you talk to teachers, once a parent walks out of sight, the child settles again. The parents have a difficulty understanding that. They think, okay my child is crying, if they were crying when I left, they’re going to cry all day, but they generally don’t.

“Children adjust pretty quickly starting school, in most cases. It’s a new environment but children are much more resilient than we give them credit for.”

McDarby said one of the advantages of starting school for the first time this term is that children have nothing else to compare it to, so measures such as pods are not seen as a change from a previous school experience.

“They haven’t attended school previously so as far as they’re concerned, this is always what school is,” he noted.

Slightly older children may be more concerned about the social and educational aspects of returning to school – will they still have the same friends, and are they behind their classmates in terms of the curriculum?

McDarby said six months is “a huge period of time” in a young child’s life. Many children will have absorbed a lot of the news they heard about Covid-19 in recent months and have concerns.

“There is a lot of information they’re seeing, they’re exposed to media, stories about schools and pods and what’s going to happen on the school bus, so it’s very important that parents are able to reassure them that they’re safe. ‘Okay, you’re going back to school. It may be slightly different but it will be safe, and your friends are going to be there.’

“Another anxiety that young kids have at the moment is that they’re worrying about going back and meeting friends. You talk to all these kids and they actually do really want to go back and see their friends, that’s one thing that they miss.

“And there’s an anxiety over that, ‘Are they still going be my friend? How do I instigate social interaction? I haven’t seen them in so long.’ And that actually causes anxiety in a lot of kids so it’s very important to talk to kids and say, ‘Yeah, absolutely, Johnny and Mary are going to be there and they’re still going to be your friend, and you know, it will be great once you see them.’

“It’s important to explain that to children and highlight all the positives and drill down through all these potential threats that are sources of anxiety.”

Homeschooling 

McDarby said parents shouldn’t be too hard on themselves as they navigate the situation – everyone is making it up as they go along.

“The reality is, we’re in uncharted waters, we’ve never had this situation before. You would have had a situation where individual children have been out of school for significant periods of time. But we’ve never had a situation since modern schooling has begun, where we’ve had an entire cohort of children nationally who have been out of school for six months.

“What we do know is that children are resilient. As long as everything else is safe and secure, they tend to pick up social relationships.”

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shutterstock_174684668 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Romiana Lee

McDarby said some children may have had difficulty re-establishing friendships and “may need a helping hand” from teachers or parents.

He noted that teachers should, and would, step in if they see a child is “struggling or having difficulty” settling into school.

“He or she may have changes in mood, that they’re becoming upset very easily or there are changes in their behaviour that are happening over over a longer period of time. Those are indicators that those children may be struggling, and may need more directive kind of work, or support.”

McDarby said homeschooling was a different experience for every child and pupils in the same class will be coming back to school at different levels.

“Some children have done more than others in terms of homeschooling, some of it is to do with the level of engagement parents have or what the school has been sending (in terms of lessons and homework). Homeschooling didn’t work so well for a lot children, and that’s no fault of the parents or the child or the teachers.”

McDarby said many children found it difficult to learn as much at home as they normally would while in school.

“A lot of children wouldn’t have progressed as much as others in the home school so you may have a disparity among children.

“There is potentially an anxiety amongst some of the older children who feel, ‘Okay I’m going back and I’m a bit behind. The rest of the class are going to be ahead of me, and it’s going to be quite obvious when the teacher asks me a question, and everyone else knows (the answer) and I don’t.’

“So it’s really important that teachers are able to reassure the children in terms of homeschooling and tell them, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’re going to go back and we’re going to pick everything up.’ Teachers are going to need to do that anyway because children are coming back at very different levels.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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