How to make sure children are mentally prepared for the big return to school

A child in a facemask – E+/ Vladimir Vladimirov When school starts next week, some

A child in a facemask - E+/ Vladimir Vladimirov
A child in a facemask – E+/ Vladimir Vladimirov

When school starts next week, some pupils won’t have seen a classroom for nearly six months. However, the doughty 11-year-olds of Highgate Primary School in Haringey had a preview of Covid-era school life when they briefly returned in the summer term. After entering the playground through a different gate, they queued at a new handwashing station.

“We got the children to hold out their hands and supervised the hand wash for them,” recalls Rebecca Lewis, deputy head and Senco (special educational needs coordinator). “On that first morning, at least half had trembling hands.” But by the following day, she says, pupils’ anxiety had vanished – testament to the support of staff and parents.

From extra hygiene measures to year-group bubbles and socially-distant playtimes, the school year ahead is going to feel significantly, uncomfortably different, and many children may find it hard to adjust. 

We all have a role to play. As one teacher from Leeds put it recently, “It’s parental WhatsApp groups spreading ­anxiety – it trickles down to the children.”

So how can we help children prepare for a term like no other; making sure they not only stay safe, but that they are happy and ready to learn?

Hannah de Leuw - Rii Schroer
Hannah de Leuw – Rii Schroer

Hannah de Leuw, 15, who attends a co-ed in London, feels confident. “The school emailed to say we are in year-group bubbles, entry and leaving times are staggered, and each year group will for the most part be situated in one area, except for the sciences. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it sounds very reasonable.”

Online learning, she adds, “really wasn’t great” and “I’m excited to get back. I’m not particularly worried about the health risks. 

“I think a lot of people my age are quite chilled about it.” Her parents are also keen for term to begin. “They think schools are the priority.” 

Most people would now agree. And if we want to facilitate a smooth transition, we’ll need to start by clamping down on late bedtimes, says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, who works with schools and young people. “First of all, get sleep back in line, or it’s going to be a shock when they have to get up early. It can take over a week to inch those sleep patterns back.”

We should by now have been restoring some structure to their day, says Dr Joseph Spence, Master of Dulwich College, an independent day and boarding school for boys. “Sport is a good way in, because it re-establishes a sense that structured activities you can do together can happen. 

“Our rugby training has been ­under way since Aug 1 – very sensibly run, with limited contact and all the new rules in place. Eighty children out every morning, in four groups, all abilities. That, for us, has been a great sign of normalisation.” 

Boy in a face mask - E+/ Vladimir Vladimirov
Boy in a face mask – E+/ Vladimir Vladimirov

Reuniting with peers is invaluable. It’s a delight to watch, Dr Spence says, as you see children’s natural resilience kick in. Relieved parents, fears alleviated, have told him: “My son is back to being bubbling, wanting to get out there, feeling valued, having purpose, instead of irritated and room-bound.” Emphasising “social engagement, fitness, fun, structure, the sense of a return to normalcy” works wonders for all ages, he says. 

Indeed, our neighbour’s daughter, 10, and son, 14, thrived on local tennis and football courses during the ­summer. Even negotiating the presence of children they disliked boosted confidence. Dr Spence says: “Any structured activity that has children working with each other in a safe ­environment is likely to be the best preparation you can offer for coming back to school.” 

Knowing what to expect on site is helpful. Take time to discover what has changed, and discuss with your child what school will look like and be like. Share school correspondence, if appropriate, so they feel informed. 

My 13-year-old’s head teacher ­advised purchasing uniform and equipment in good time, getting children used to setting their alarms, and noted that students could wear face masks if they wished (this was prior to this week’s row over whether to make them mandatory). If children ­experienced the dry-run return in summer term, says Dr Spence, remind them “you know how to conduct yourself around this campus”.

Boris Johnson waits to wash his hands at a school in Hemel Hempstead in June - AFP/Getty
Boris Johnson waits to wash his hands at a school in Hemel Hempstead in June – AFP/Getty

“Lots of schools are putting videos on their websites or Facebook pages,” adds Dr Kilbey. It’s helpful for children to see the measures being taken to mitigate risk. “There will be class or year-group bubbles, one-way systems, staggered lunchtimes. Very young children might not know any different, but for older children it will be a ­reminder that the world is still in a state of alert about the virus.”

Seek clarity if you’re worried. “A good school will want to enable you to come back, to a degree, on your terms,” says Dr Spence. Ask if you’re confused about a policy, as understanding it may reassure. (One primary school isn’t implementing the Government’s recommendation of “forward facing” learning for years 3 and 4 because these children gain so much from sitting together at a table.) “There is a difference in the ways schools are interpreting the government guidance,” says Dr Kilbey. 

Social distancing policy may vary according to year group. With young children, says Dr Kilbey, “it’s particularly important to remind them about hygiene – not touching your face, washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough – more than it is to reinforce a constant message of keeping apart from each other. Four- and five-year-olds are touchers and huggers – it’s really difficult to get them not to do that.”

Lewis, of Highgate Primary, says: “We were very honest [with parents]. We said there wouldn’t be social ­distancing in bubbles – it just wasn’t ­going to work.”

She adds: “The whole point of ­being at school in year 1 and reception is to learn how to share and play. That requires children to be close to one another, to pass equipment, to join in games and hand over toys.”

A school choir - Getty Images Contributor/ skynesher
A school choir – Getty Images Contributor/ skynesher

She says that class story time has ­alleviated anxiety. If parents want a springboard for discussion for primary children, prior to the start of term, Lewis recommends The Last Wild by Piers Torday, about a plague that came to earth. Also, watch what you imply – one primary school concluded that staff must assess real risk and modify language around Covid, as shrieking “Get away!” if children forgot to keep their distance exacerbated anxiety. (Parents can think too: “Is it better for their mental health that I deal with this in another way?”)

Meanwhile, if your child needs ­extra support for any reason, contact the school in advance. Alison Penny, director of the Childhood Bereavement Network (, says: “It’s very common for bereaved children and young ­people to be anxious about the health of other family members, and how their friends and peers will react to their news. Talk to the school and make a plan for return, which could ­include how the rest of the class will be told. Discuss which staff member they’d feel comfortable talking to if they get overwhelmed.”

Sheena Patel, a teaching assistant from London, contacted her 16-year-old’s comprehensive in lockdown as he was struggling with anxiety, depression, and the feeling that five years of hard work had been pointless. 

Patel has worked to change his mindset (“your knowledge is yours”) – and therapy and medication are helping – but she had to prompt the school to offer support. Yet, once her son’s form tutor was ­informed, “he was amazing”. He chatted with her son in person, rang over summer, and involved the school’s pastoral care staff and Senco. “He has requested my son to be in his form this year. It’s making my son feel confident that people are trying to help him.” 

The Senco suggested a staggered ­return – “He might come in a different time, and do one lesson a day for the first week.” Patel adds. “My son says, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to feel ­until I get there.’ But he’s happy that the staff will be there if he needs anything. He knows there’s a place he can go if he needs time out, and that a pastoral care staff member is close at hand.” Support from family and friends has helped. “He’s got some good mates – I couldn’t wish for better.” 

GCSE or A-level year teens may be anxious about work – it’s helpful for parents to acknowledge this, and provide practical support if wanted. But, says Dr Spence, have faith that schools will take charge of the syllabus. “These are not the weeks to worry yourself by beavering away.”

L'Ecole des Petit school Fulham - Reuters
L’Ecole des Petit school Fulham – Reuters

However, we can help teens get organised, says Dr Kilbey. “Parents may need to step in more. There are fantastic ­resources online. You can find out the subject content from exam boards, where the gaps are, what they’ve covered.” You might help them learn how to revise effectively. 

While there’s inevitably catching-up to do, Dr Spence and Dr Kilbey suggest we point out a silver lining to fretting teens. Dr Kilbey says: “Children have been given an opportunity to take more charge of their own learning, to be more independent and self-driven. 

“Those self-organisation and self-motivation executive functioning skills are so crucial. Time management, task-management, writing lists, prioritising are thoroughly useful life skills. Some home learning has really helped young people.” Appreciate, too, that they’re coping with loss and uncertainty. 

Schools will be bereft of choir, drama, sports competitions, trips, mentoring, mixed year group activities and more. Dr Kilbey says: “It’s about trying to find all the things your children enjoy – and thinking what are the workarounds? What can be achieved? 

“It might mean doing activities in much smaller groups, finding creative solutions that might not be perfect, but offer something of what they’re looking for.” These are tough times, but as Dr Spence says: “If a parent wants to ­encourage a child, he or she needs to project a confidence in the immediate and longer-term future.” 

You can still be honest. If children find their disappointment hard to ­express, Dr Kilbey suggests you say: “I think you’re upset because competitive netball/newspaper club isn’t on this term.” You might add: “Everyone’s in the same boat, and it is super-­frustrating. But this isn’t forever.”

How do parents feel about the big return?

‘Both children are autistic, and they’ve been very anxious’
The Graingers - Andrew Crowley
The Graingers – Andrew Crowley

Hester Grainger, 42, from Reading, is mother to India, 10, and Hudson, 8, who attend a local state school

Both children were diagnosed last year as autistic. They’re bright and both do really well at school, but despite having a lot of friends, they can find the social side, and getting through the day, quite stressful. But you’d never know that – from the teacher’s point of view, they’re model students. Even if they’d been crying, they’d get to the school gate, and put a game face on – deep breaths, in we go.

When coronavirus hit, we took the children out of school a week early. Everyone thought we were a bit over-the-top, but my husband, Kelly, and I work from home – why send them in when they really don’t want to go? That’s when home learning started. 

We got creative, and signed up to an online resource. India has been desperate to be homeschooled for years. But it was stressful, as we were also trying to run our business. India realised it wasn’t as much fun as she’d thought it would be.

We don’t have family nearby. It’s been just us four, and quite intense. Neither child is desperate to go back, but they’ve both said they’d rather go back than be homeschooled. I think they do need to. Already they’re asking: “How many days till we’re going back?” I’m aware that it’s not their happy place.

The school had one transition day in July. It was incredibly hard to get the children in to school. They were both very anxious. My son came back and had a meltdown. Being swanlike for six hours is pretty exhausting. Also, it wasn’t as fun as he’d imagined it would be. He had to do proper maths, proper English. I spoke to the teacher, who said: “It wasn’t quite like that.”

But that’s how he felt it was. My daughter had a better time – her day was quite relaxed, more easing them back into it. We’re talking about school, and all the changes. With autistic children you don’t just say: “It’s in a few weeks, don’t worry about it.” If they say they’re worried, I say: “What is it you’re worried about?” You’ve got to get to the bottom of it. “You’re worried you might sit next to someone you don’t like? Has that happened before? Yes? What did we do?” “You came in and spoke to the teacher.” We draw on past examples, to show that you might not want to go to school, but you did, and actually, it was fun seeing your friends.

Because my son is very literal, after the transition day he said: “I don’t understand – we’re meant to social distance but my teacher came near to help me with my work.” I said: “It’s doing what you can, when you can.” It’s teaching them the need to be flexible.

They’re apprehensive about being with a lot of other children. My son is incredibly worried about catching coronavirus. We had to say: “This is what happens if you catch it, you might feel poorly, we know a few people who’ve had it, they’ve been fine in the end.” Just being practical, and using real-life examples.

The school is doing a good job of communicating with us. They shared a nice video on their Facebook page, explaining, “this is how the school will look, how you’ll line up, we’ll be wearing visors – you’ll be able to see us smiling.” 

My children were concerned that their teachers would wear masks, and how much of their faces they’d be able to see.

As a family, we talk a lot about how we feel. That helps. We don’t live too far from the school, so we’ve started walking past it a bit more. During lockdown we watched a few videos filmed in the school – past sports days, happy events. 

It’s about trying to adapt, to get them ready. We talked about school uniform, getting that sorted. It’s useful for any child who’s nervous about going back. Rather than saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine”, taking time to explain will make it a smoother transition.

‘Will they understand why they can’t get a hug from their teacher?’
Naomi Empowers with her children Rhianne and Aaron - Andrew Crowley
Naomi Empowers with her children Rhianne and Aaron – Andrew Crowley

Naomi Empowers, 33, is mother to Rhianne, 8, and Aaron, 6. They go to an independent school in west London

My mum is the headmistress of the school my children attend – in fact, it’s the school I attended. They absolutely love it. At collection time, no one wants to go home. 

Initially, when schools announced they were closing, I thought, “my goodness, how am I going to stay sane?” I’m a lone parent. But the school was wonderful in terms of its online provision. 

My feelings about the return to school have evolved. I’ve gone from “absolutely no way” to “OK, you guys need to go” to “Am I being a terrible parent for subjecting my children to this when we haven’t truly got this pandemic under control?” I remember seeing images of a school in France, where there were chalk lines drawn on the playground floor to keep children apart.

I was so disheartened. Our school sent out a survey to consult with parents about their concerns. I wrote that I was worried about the psychological impact on children of going back under those conditions. They’re young, it’s a family environment, they’re used to getting a hug from their teacher. 

To be unable to touch or get too close would be such a drastic change. I didn’t want them to feel rejected, and be unable to understand why they were being prevented from doing normal things. I’d rather keep them at home than send them back to such an environment.

I became more open to the idea of them going back as I realised that those images weren’t an accurate reflection of what would happen in September – though I’m not sure if that’s partly to do with me needing a break! I was juggling working from home with being the school cook, cleaner, teacher – it was a lot.

But then I read about schools in another country having to shut after a spike. My duty as a parent is to protect my children. So I don’t know what’s right – I feel as if I’m in an impossible situation.

 I have a friend whose daughter developed Kawasaki disease – a complication of Covid that children typically present with after contracting the virus. The school has taken precautions. There are hand-sanitising stations. There’s spacing between tables. But I know what I was like as a child. It doesn’t matter how far apart tables are! The children are excited about going back to school for the social element.

 But my daughter has said she doesn’t want to die. I wouldn’t say it’s a fear – it’s not a recurring conversation. And I always give my children the time and space to talk about whatever’s on their mind.

But for months we’ve been bombarded with messages about how dreadful this thing is. I don’t know, despite all the precautions, if it’s truly safe. The only way to find out is to get back and see what happens – and that frightens me. 

How to help if your child is anxious about the return to school

Look out for key indicators of anxiety – perhaps a question they are asking repeatedly, a change in sleeping or eating habits, or more challenging behaviour. While lots of children are looking forward to returning to school, many remain unsettled, says Dr Kilbey. “There’s a lot of anxiety among parents, and that can make children more anxious. So think about what your anxieties are and how you may be communicating them to your child.” 

Discussing your worries with your child will make them feel more anxious. Instead, says Dr Kilbey, “Parents can talk through their worries with other adults and try to find information to help address their concerns.” A helpful message to children is: “The consensus is that it’s OK to go back.” She adds: “Remind children that school is important.” What if your 10-year-old notices that a teacher is anxious? “Be honest. Say, ‘We’re still taking precautions to manage the virus, it’s been a difficult time, and grown-ups have been worried.’” 

Don’t dismiss their anxieties. Dr Kilbey says: “The temptation is to offer reassurance. That tends to reinforce the anxiety. You end up endlessly talking about it, which doesn’t move you forward. What anxiety needs is guidance and clear leadership. So try to contain your child’s anxiety.” This doesn’t mean denying it, or saying “it’s fine”, which is unhelpful. 

Rather, find out what it’s about, acknowledge their worry, get the relevant information (such as details of measures in place to keep them safe), and share that. You might say: “I can see this is worrying you, but we have a plan, and it’s going to be OK, because we’re going to do X, Y, Z and I’m going to help you.” It’s about giving calm guidance, and not being affected by their anxiety.

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