Back to school? Here’s how to help your child adjust

Girl standing infront of school gates with backpack and books in hand

by Lucy Vallance

Has time lost all meaning? Even our most trusted and reliable metric seems to have succumbed to the endless bedlam of pandemic life. Just yesterday we were grimly addicted to a sombre tea-time address from three men on podiums and now, we’ve had a couple of reduced-price suppers, cancelled (then rebooked, then cancelled) a few holidays and suddenly it’s September, the heatwave is over and it is back to school.

It’s all a little unsettling. Here’s how you can help your child adjust:

Reinstate Routine – Much research has gone into the efficacy of routine in helping children handle grief and trauma and the same applies to adapting to major change. The return to school will enforce some structure back into family life. It will no longer be acceptable for them to be eating Wotsits in their pyjamas at 2pm. Whilst this may feel like a major imposition on their newfound liberty, having to be showered, dressed, homework completed, school bag packed etc will restore purpose, giving them a timetable and more definition between work and play. If some of their extracurriculars have been cancelled, insert a few yourselves. Family games night on Wednesdays, Zoom with the grandparents on Sundays, pizza on Fridays. The reassuring recurrence of these events will provide some certainty in a most uncertain time. Establish as many as you realistically can keep up.

Admit when you don’t know the answer to a Corona related question

Will we see our cousins at half-term? When will things go back to normal? Why does Mrs Wilkinson’s mask make her look so weird? 

Parents and teachers are often held up as gatekeepers to all the world’s information but it is absolutely ok to explain that we are dealing with something highly unusual here, many variables are unknown and some of what we think we know, we might get wrong as the situation is constantly changing. Don’t attempt to conceal your uncertainty and worry by not talking about it. This will increase the fear it conjures in young minds, not unlike horror films, the most effective of which you never actually see the evil, you only sense it. Bring Covid out of the shadows and into the light and the whole thing becomes less scary. Joke about it, explain that everyone is having to ride the coronacoaster and all of us (including the politicians) are having to wing it.

Accept that all safety precautions and preventative measures implemented by the school will not succeed all the time. My primary school teacher friend had me in hysterics regaling her dismay at duly quarantining the class rubbers for 72 hours after each and every use, only to find her pupils licking each other in the playground during break. They are only 6 years old. Encourage your children to adhere to all safety efforts but let’s not get overly neurotic. If everyone does their best, most of the time, then with any luck, it should be enough. Which brings me on to…

Give everyone a 25% margin of being a covidiot. I got yelled at by a lady ambling out of a supermarket the other day. She was ignoring the massive arrows and exiting through the entrance.’That’s not 2m!!!” she shrieked. My eyebrows shot up. “I’ve got vulnerable people at home” she added, as if it were case closed. Honestly, reader, I was seething at the pure injustice of it. Yet it has taken me years to realise there is no point arguing with idiots. – it does the blood pressure no good. Emit a silent sigh and bite your tongue because we never fully know the burden someone else is carrying. This woman and I are not operating under the same circumstances. We all have vastly different home set-ups, family demographics, health concerns, attitudes to risk, anxiety levels, political ideologies and we certainly all have different theories on how we would have handled this better if we were in charge. Allow everyone – teachers, pupils, other parents – a margin of getting it a little wrong and extend that tolerance, compassion and empathy to yourself too. Trust me, it’s a better way to live.

Look for the good. Sorry to go all ‘gratitude warrior’ on you but dwelling on the positive where you can is crucial. It becomes easier the more often you force yourself to do it and will have a knock-on effect on the perceptions of those around you. Yes, it has been an awful time, but hey, it’s also been fascinating. Humanity has had to rapidly innovate and adapt to survive. There have been notable winners as well as losers (shout out to anyone who bought shares in Zoom at the beginning of the year). Our human spirit has found benefits to this new life, salvaged from the wreckage. That’s the macrocosm but in the microcosm find as much joy in the minutiae of family life as you can, celebrate each and every achievement even if it feels insubstantial in the grand scheme of things. This morning one of my students was dancing with happiness on scoring 41% in a maths test. Not impressive in isolation but given that she used to hit 30%, this was a milestone. Celebrate them all. Attitude is everything.