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Preparing for ‘back to school’

As some of our Junior School pupils prepare for a phased return to school, our School Counsellor, Rayna Shock (MA, UKCP reg, MBACP), offers some advice to help parents to manage their daughters’, as well their own, emotional well-being.

Some of your daughters will be desperate to get back to school, to see their friends and their teachers again. Others might find leaving home more difficult after a protracted time at home with their families. For these girls, being at home may, unconsciously, have felt like returning to the safety of the womb and they may feel reluctant to re-emerge into the world once again.

There will also be some parents who are worried about sending their children back to school for a variety of reasons. It is useful for parents to recognise that, since children are highly attuned to their parents’ emotions, parents’ anxiety will transfer, at some level, to them. Wherever possible, parents should try to minimise this transfer of worry and attempt to instil confidence and security in the minds of their daughters, even if parents themselves are not quite feeling this way.

It is important to note that returning to ‘school’ will not be returning to the place and routines the girls left in March. They will not be returning to all things familiar. Instead, there will be a variety of restrictions placed on them and tensions throughout the community may be heightened. All people, and certainly children, will find this difficult. Below are some tips for how parents can help girls to be supported through their transition ‘back to school’.

Prepare your daughter for returning to school:
• Your daughter needs to be prepared for what to expect when she goes back to school, as far as this is possible. School will not be the same and she needs to understand this, particularly new procedures and rules around social distancing. There will be smaller classes, different rules, routines, lunch arrangements etc. which you can discuss with your daughter in an age appropriate way.
• Your daughter needs to be aware that she may be separated from some of her friends. If she understands why this has to be the case, and if you are positive in the way you put this to her, (eg by explaining that it is a good opportunity to get to know other friends better), your daughter will feel more positive about the situation. The more upbeat and confident you are as a parent, the more your daughter will be too, as she will naturally take her cue from you. Focusing on the positives will also help manage her expectations when she returns to school.
• It is important that you allow your daughter to ask you whatever questions she needs to and that she is free to express any fears and worries without judgment. If you find that your child keeps asking the same questions, it is a clue that she is anxious and needs reassurance.
• As a parent, you need to prepare yourself emotionally for your daughter returning to school. You need to be honest about your own anxieties about releasing your daughter from home after so long, especially if she has separation anxiety or if she is anxious about going back. As much as possible, try to find a way to deal with your own worries so that they are not transferred to your daughter. As suggested above, children are highly attuned to their parents’ feelings, whether these are expressed openly or not. So, if you are worried about returning to work outside the home yourself, be aware that your children will sense that. If they see that their parents are worried, they may feel they need to be too, even if they are also eager to go back to school.

The calmer and more positive and excited the parents sound, the more confident their children will be.

• If your daughter is reluctant to go back to school, or if she has siblings who are not going back, explain to her why this is the case and try to help her to see that she is the lucky one. She will have the exciting opportunity to play with her (new) friends, see her teachers again etc. It would be useful to ask your daughter what she needs (from you, from school) to help her feel better/safer/more confident about going back into the classroom. Inform the class teacher what your daughter is anxious or unhappy about, so that the teacher is aware.
• If you, as a parent, are anxious, make sure that you keep well informed and try to manage your own anxiety. School have thought long and hard about the children’s safety, as well as that of the staff; so it will help if you can take a deep breath, trust the decisions school has made and hand over the responsibility for worrying about your daughter to the teachers while she is at school. It will free you up both to be more confident about sending her back and to get on with your own work!

When your daughter comes home from school:
• Make sure that you spend quality time with your daughter to talk about her day. In a tone, which expects a positive response, ask her what she did that day, what she enjoyed and how she found the new routines etc. Ask her also if there was anything which she found hard and explore this gently with her, normalising any worries she has, but offering reassurance to help settle her mind.
• Quality time every day is particularly important for those children who may have attachment or separation issues and those girls who may have imagined that their siblings have had quality time all day at home with their parent(s).

Over time:
• Most girls will adapt easily to the new routines at school, especially as they will have been well prepared in advance. Others may take a little longer to adjust, depending on their personality and family circumstances. It is also worth noting that if your daughter does not display distress on her first day or even week back at school, it does not mean to say that this will always be the case. If your daughter has been talking openly to you every day after school, you should easily pick up any signs of what things are becoming difficult.
• Be alert to behaviour changes in your daughter. She could become more worried, irritable, angry, frustrated or quieter than normal. She could become fussier, complain of poor sleep or nightmares, develop more obsessive routines at home (for example, washing hands more obsessively than normal). Change in behaviour should alert you to the fact that your daughter may be distressed or anxious. It is important for parents to remain calm and to discover what lies behind the behaviours, rather than punish them.

Because you have been speaking to her regularly and openly about her feelings, with gentle encouragement, your daughter is likely to tell you what is wrong. It is really important to validate her feelings, however trivial they may seem. Listen attentively, ask open questions, empathise with your daughter and try to manage your own emotions. Look at the situation from all perspectives, before exploring a solution. A calm, patient, rational approach is always recommended, as is alerting school if there is an issue you cannot resolve at home with your daughter.

A tip for your own responses: anger can be a symptom of anxiety, so before you react angrily to any situation, try to work out whether anxiety may lie behind the anger, so that you can choose more consciously how to respond. It would be useful if you share this also with the rest of the family so that you are all less reactive, when challenges arise!

Listen attentively, ask open questions, empathise with your daughter and try to manage your own emotions.

If your daughter isn’t returning to school:
Parents whose daughters are not returning to school with their peers should be aware that they may find it more difficult to be at home, knowing that friends are getting together at school. This new reality could make these girls feel even more isolated than they did when they knew everyone else was at home. This is more likely in the case where a child wants to return to school but isn’t able to because of their circumstances, but it may also be the case for children who are broadly happy to be staying at home. In both cases, they are likely to feel a strong sense of missing out.
• If you have chosen to keep your daughter at home, it is recommended that you explain why she is not able to go back, in language that she can understand.
• Give your daughter plenty of time to ask you questions and try to be as honest as possible, without frightening her. If she understands that there are good reasons why she has to stay at home, she will accept it more easily.
• Ask your daughter what would make it easier for her. Is there anything you could do to help her feel better about the situation? Can you do anything to facilitate her feeling more connected to her peers from home? Show her that you understand her reasons for feeling upset and that you want to help.
• It is important for your daughter to know that there will be a time when she can go back to school and see her friends again; and that, until then, you will do your best to help her stay in contact with her friends and help her with her work so that she doesn’t fall behind.

If your daughter is in Year 6:
• Discuss with your daughter the fact that many pupils will be joining the Year 7 class from other schools and that everyone makes a fresh start in September, with new classes, new teachers and new experiences. When this happens, she will be just like everyone else who is finding their feet and establishing new routines.
• Consider finding a way to mark the transition with a ritual or celebration at home. You could make a scrapbook with photos and other memorabilia that you have kept from your daughter’s time at school, you could have a special family meal to celebrate or you could arrange a ‘party’ via Zoom or other platform with her friends at the end of term.

Most of your daughters will be excited to return to school and will not experience any issues. Even if the above advice does not apply to your daughter now, much of it applies in any situation, so is well worth considering for the future. If you are doing all these things anyway, you can feel reassured about the quality of support your daughter is getting from you as her parent.

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