Schools are reopening across the country and some children are returning to class after months of distance learning.
While parents can breathe a collective sigh of relief, children can hear the news with mixed emotions – younger children took a while to settle into this new routine, while older children are content with the social and educational challenges of returning to class.
That’s a lot for anyone of any age, so HuffPost UK asked two child psychologists what parents can do to help. Here’s what they had to say.
How are the children feeling now?
The first step in supporting a child of any age is not to make assumptions about how they might feel, said Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the British Psychological Society Division of Educational and Child Psychology.
“The views of children and the voices of children have been totally absent from any government discussion and I think in fact what they are doing is seeing children as this homogeneous group, and it is not the case, ”he told HuffPost UK. “All children have different needs and are different.”
There is an approach called “emotional coaching” in educational psychology, which encourages adults to imagine themselves in a similar scenario in order to understand what children might be feeling. In this case, it could be as easy as thinking about how it would feel to return to work after a long absence.
It can elicit feelings of anxiety, relief, excitement, nerves in the face of the unknown, or a mixture of emotions.
Children may be eager to see their friends, or they may fear the dynamics of friendship have changed, a child psychologist said. Amanda gummer. Some students may also be concerned about what is expected of them “especially with new testing processes and social distancing”.
Children of all ages may find it difficult to express how they are feeling, but changes in behavior can be the best indicator of their apprehension about the news. “Children being unusually clingy, picking up their food and not sleeping are all signs that something is going on for them,” Gummer said of young children. “If it’s school related, they may scold when you say it, or even try to hide their lunchbox or school uniform.”
How can you encourage children to open up?
The first thing adults can do to encourage open conversation is what educational psychologists call “questioning themselves out loud,” O’Hare said.
It involves saying a sentence such as, “I wonder if you are feeling a little nervous or excited about going back to school?”
“Labeling their feelings and just exposing them can be so powerful,” O’Hare explained, “because a kid can say ‘yes, that’s exactly how I feel’, or it gives her a chance to say ‘ no, i’m really sad because we played a lot of games and i will miss you. It just opens the conversation.
With older children, it can be helpful to give them advance warning of the conversation and what you hope to discuss, so it doesn’t sound like an unexpected questioning. It doesn’t have to be too formal, you can say something like, “Later this week, maybe Friday, we can talk about back to school and what you think?”
Open ended questions are essential – “Are you looking forward to going back to school?” is a yes or no question. “Give them time to collect their ideas and discuss them with their friends,” said O’Hare.
Peers are important to older children, so it can be a good idea to start the conversation by “externalizing” thoughts in this way. “What does Kayleigh think? What does Ahmed think, because his mother is not at home? may work where a direct question does not. “Talking about things ‘out there’ can sometimes be easier than ‘here’,” O’Hare added.
How can you help prepare children concretely?
Encouraging “self-management skills” like dressing and using the bathroom independently will help young children prepare for the transition to the classroom, Gummer said. “Playing a role at school with your child can also really help,” she added.
Giving a child visual reminders about school can also help alleviate uncertainty. You can do this by visiting the school website together, or by sharing the resources the teacher has sent home.
It can also be helpful to discuss their memories of school with young children. Ask them where they line up in the morning, who they are standing with, or what color spot they are standing on.
“All of these details will make it look like it’s real, rather than this uncertain mystery that’s going on,” O’Hare said. “If kids don’t have a very clear sense, sometimes they can fill in the gaps with their imaginations, and their imaginations probably make matters worse.”
This last point is also relevant for older students. Try to be honest with them about new things in school, even if you admit that you don’t know all the answers yet.
“Talk to them about the challenges they faced during the lockdown and help them prepare for a change in friendship dynamics when everyone is back in one place,” Gummer added.
Reminding children – regardless of their age – that you are there for them if they are thinking of other things will also reassure and support them.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK.