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New Normal? Back To School

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The COVID-19 pandemic and the levels of restrictions still in place continue to affect our lives. How are children feeling this year as they return to school after the long vac, and what can parents do to help? Dorothy Veitch reports

It will be hard to gauge the full impact the pandemic is having on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing until we emerge from it fully. Safe to say, some children, despite restrictions, feel safe and mostly enjoy their lives; others find themselves severely challenged.

While some children and young people will be excited to be returning to school after the summer break, others will be feeling very differently. It may be that school no longer feels ‘normal’ to them – though schools reopened briefly at the end of May, homeschooling had been the norm for the best part of six months before that.

Children who enjoyed the freedom afforded by homeschool may not relish the prospect of a ‘longterm’ return to the classroom. Others, who have grown increasingly reliant on being at home with family, may not feel like school is a safe place.

The sudden and often inconsistent changes experienced during the pandemic may have led to many children and young people feeling uncertain. Children may worry that things which used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, are no longer something they can rely on.

There may be a lack of confidence amongst young people in the adults in their lives. As they have seen adults struggle to agree about how to manage the crisis, their sense that they can rely on adults to keep them safe may have been diminished.

Due to a potential lack of confidence amongst young people in the way that the pandemic has been dealt with by adults, they may be feeling uncertain about measures their school is taking to keep them safe. There may be a great deal of uncertainty about ongoing safety measures and restrictions.

The impact of further coronavirus outbreaks on school attendance (and parents’ income) will be another source of worry for many children.

As children’s education continues to be affected by the pandemic, with various restrictions in place, the usual preparation that would be done with pupils transitioning to the next school year may be lacking. This will be particularly challenging for those moving from primary to secondary school, those moving into exams years and those preparing to leave school.

For those who are approaching the end of their time at school – whether they are considering transitions to college or university or looking for work – the impact of the virus and subsequent restrictions on admissions processes, exam procedures and employment prospects remains unclear, and many pupils are likely to worry about their future.

With social distancing measures – in and outside of school – friendships may have become strained or deteriorated. As peer groups are an important source of support for young people, this may mean that many will have lacked a vital source of support in managing the stresses of the pandemic. Children’s lives have started to ‘get back to normal’ over the holidays, with many restrictions lifted, but many may still feel apprehensive about returning to school and reconnecting with large numbers of their peers.

The nature of the crisis itself – around a contagious illness – is a potent opportunity for bullying to arise. Social distancing and handwashing measures are likely to still be necessary for some time and could provide fuel for bullying around potential ‘contagion.’

Growing up in such a culturally rich community, it is said that DB kids don’t ‘see colour’ but it is important to be aware of the rise in incidents of racism worldwide around coronavirus.

Some children and young people will have relatives or friends who have died during the pandemic, due to coronavirus or other illnesses. Even more will be aware of a relative or friend being seriously unwell or hospitalised. For other young people, there will be other types of loss – for example, they may have experienced long-term isolation from important figures in their life, such as grandparents.

Regardless of the type of loss, many will be experiencing this with a sense of grief. The way that children and young people respond to those feelings of loss and grief will differ widely – some may seem sad or withdrawn, others may appear irritable or angry.

For children and young people who were receiving support for mental and physical health problems prior to the pandemic, this will likely have been disrupted or cancelled. This loss of an important source of support may mean children and young people with pre-existing conditions are struggling.

Children already experiencing challenging home environments may have seen their circumstances worsen during the pandemic. Others will have been facing challenging home situations – domestic violence, abuse or neglect, family conflict, financial concerns (due to loss of employment for parents) – for the first time.

The scale of the challenge isn’t yet clear but if you consider that UK-based domestic violence charity Refuge has reported a 700% increase in calls to their helpline, it is likely that significantly increased pastoral care resources will be required well beyond the pandemic.

Children may have worries in the coming weeks as they prepare to return to school, so it’s time to start talking. Talk to them in a way that is sensitive to their needs – you will know your child best. Don’t intrude or impose yourself, but gently open the conversation and let them know you’re there for them if they want to talk.

Make yourself available as much as possible. Children may want to come and ‘debrief’ when you least expect it. Create space for talking in different ways, such as going on a walk together or baking together – there may be less pressure in these circumstances than when sitting face-to-face. Check in with them periodically. Don’t assume children are ok because they seem it. Ask how things are going. Ask questions like: What are you looking forward to about being back at school? Any worries or challenges?

If you feel comfortable, you could share your own worries and feelings about the current situation. Acknowledge that it’s normal to feel anxious about going back to school – try sharing an example of a time you’ve felt nervous about going into a new situation. Importantly too, share coping strategies – talk about what you do when you feel stressed, such as speaking with friends and family, exercising, or using breathing techniques.

Lastly, be positive. Express your hope (though not your certainty) that the return to school signifies a return to normal life. Discuss all the opportunities this opens up – time spent with friends, direct interaction with teachers, new extra-curricular activities to enjoy. In the coming weeks, empower your children to enjoy being back at school by ensuring they eat well, take care of their bodies and get plenty of sleep.

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