Next week, children across New South Wales will be returning to school. This won’t be like a normal return to school following a school holiday; things will be very different. Most children will only be returning to school one day each week rather than five. They’ll be returning to a classroom that’ll have fewer children. They may be attending school on a different day to their friends or even their siblings. 

We know this has raised many emotions in our children – and even in us, their parents. We know many of you are feeling uncertain or anxious about this transition, and that your kids are asking questions that you may be struggling to answer. 

So we went to the experts to get some advice. We spoke with two highly regarded local professionals – Dr John Irvine (Paediatric Psychologist and founder of the READ Clinic in Erina) and Rebecca Thompson (Early Childhood Consultant and founder of Stone & Sprocket) and asked how parents can best help their children navigate this transition back to the classroom.

What’s happening? 

The NSW Government and other states have made the decision to return students to school this week (week 3 of term 2 2020) after approximately six weeks of isolation due to COVID-19.

You may feel anxious about many things regarding the return/transition to school or care next week. Rebecca Thompson, says, “These feelings are normal”. Recognise that these feelings are normal and that they will also be different for every family.

Start the conversation with your children now

In the days leading up to the transition back to school, start conversations with your children about their upcoming return to school and discuss what the first day will be like.

Rebecca Thompson of Stone & Sprocket says, “Ask your child if they have any questions about the return to school. If your child doesn’t have any questions and you know them to be a child who keeps their thoughts to themselves, you might like to provide them with a simple statement that they can carry with them and refer to when they get worried.”

Here is a phrase you could use: “You know the virus I told you about? Well, it is starting to go away. This means that less people have it and we can start to go back to school/preschool again”.

If you have an anxious child, watch this video by Dr John (founder of the READ Clinic) as he talks about COVID-19 and how to talk to your children about what’s happening. You can also sit your child down to watch and hear this story, read by Dr John, about the Worry Woos and how they can help your child better control and understand their worries. 

How do I explain to my child that things will be different at school during this return-to-school time? 

Children will notice that things are different, and it’s important we prepare them for those differences while also reassuring them that these changes have been put in place to keep them safe.

Rebecca has provided these phrases for you to use to reassure your children of their return to school and the changes they may notice: 

“We will only be going to school one day each week, on __(Tuesday)__, because the teachers want to make sure there is enough time to see everyone and to make space for us to keep healthy. It is safe to go to school/preschool, your teachers will keep you safe”.

“You might notice some things your school will do to make sure everyone is safe, and I want you to follow these just like we did at home e.g. wash your hands, try not to touch your face, give your friends a wink or a pretend ‘air hi-five’ – don’t shake hand or hug just yet.”

“Remember, if we get the virus it makes us sick but we can get better just like we did when we had a cold. Some people who can’t get better quickly might be staying at home still – that’s why you might not see all of your teachers or staff at your school”.

How will Phase 1 of NSW’s Managed Return to School look? 

  • Students will attend school at least one day per week. You are encouraged to keep your child at home for the rest of the week wherever possible.
  • Families who need to send their child to school every day may continue to do so and no child will be turned away.
  • Classes are split across different spaces and break times can be staggered.
  • There will be no excursions or inter-school activities.
  • There will be continued enhanced cleaning and hygiene supply arrangements.
  • Follow your school’s advice regarding changes to drop off and pick up, including staying in your car when dropping off and picking up your child/children if safe to do so.
  • Maintain social distancing by avoiding gathering outside of school gates.
  • Make sure your child/children have access to lunch and snacks, noting some canteens may not be operating at this stage.
  • Follow health advice and keep your child/children at home if they are unwell.

Talk to your child about how their school day will be different

A number of daily school routines will be different. Talk to your child about these differences and give yourself time to prepare and plan for the first day. 

  • Will there be different things you need to pack?
  • Will the canteen be open?  
  • How will drop off and pick up occur? Many schools have asked parents not to come in to the school and to drop off and pick up all children at the school gate. Rebecca says, “You need to be very honest with your child about where the separation point will be and how it will be different to last time they attended school.”
  • What are the routines changes throughout the day if any? You can contact your school to request a schedule for the day. Some preschools and schools can provide a ‘social story’ about what the day might look like.

Paediatric Psychologist Dr John Irvine shares how you can best answer your kids’ questions

1) My child is asking, “Why am I returning to school only one day a week and not five?” How am I best to answer them? 

Dr John Irvine says, “From my experience, it’s usually the parents asking that question as the kids fight for attention and seem hell bent on stopping parents having any room to breathe. It’s very hard for kids to understand a danger they can’t feel, smell, see, touch or sense in any way.

  • Just explain to them that because we don’t have a cure yet, the best way we can protect each other is to avoid crowds. (I wouldn’t play up the 1.5 m – that’s too complicated and anxiety producing).
  • The only way that can be done at school is to cut back on the number of children in the school at any time and, to be fair to every other child, that means they all have to take turns in going to school. Just like classes need to take turns on the equipment or basketball court, etc.

2) My child is asking, ‘How do I social distance at school?’. What do I say? 

Dr John says, “The good news to share, with a reassuring grin, is that they don’t have to worry about that. The teachers have been well and truly trained to supervise social distancing. They will make sure the kids aren’t crowding anywhere and will tell them if they are.

If the children really want to help, they can help a lot by being mindful to avoid crowding together.” 

3) Many children have been allocated different days to their friends. How do I support my child with this change/sadness? 

If the children are pretty good with social skills and are confident, this venture will be like another exciting adventure for them to explore. If they’re like Squeek, the Worry Woos creature who’s scared of new adventures, then here are a few ideas:

  1. Ask your school teacher if they have the Worry Woos program at the school, and if they do, ask if you can borrow Squeek and the accompanying book “The Monster in the Bubble”;
  2. Chat to your child’s teacher: tell them your dilemma and ask about the possibility of a minor shift in the grouping to allow a friend or two to go to school on the same day – that may not be possible, but it’s worth a try;
  3. If your child has a favourite teddy or security symbol/plush toy, ask the teacher if your child could take it to school with them until the familiar groups return;
  4. Today’s kids are savvy with social media; you might be able to set up a time for them to contact their friends when they’re at school and vice versa – when their friends are at school and your child isn’t then the roles can be reversed.

4) Schools are asking parents to drop off and pick up children from the school gate rather than walk them into school. I have a child in infants; I normally walk my child into school in the morning and pick them up from their classroom in the afternoon. How do I help them manage this change in routine? 

Here are Dr Irvine’s suggestions: 

  • I’d suggest you contact your child’s BFF’s parent and arrange for the kids to go to school together or meet at the gate and go in together.
  • Maybe you can set up a roster of one parent dropping off both friends in the morning and the other parent  collects in the afternoon.
  • The kids will handle the anxiety about the new routine well if their parents are! Up to 90% of what we communicate to our kids comes not from our words but from our feelings and body language. If we’re confident then they know it will be okay.
  • Infants teachers are spectacularly good at making even the shiest child feel secure – it may be possible for you to set up a routine where their teacher can meet the kids at the gate and welcome them in so it’s not too scary.

5) My children will be attending school on different days. Do you have any tricks for how I can encourage them to attend when they know their sibling will be staying at home?  

I agree that this is a real source of friction and school reluctance.

  • If you can link something special in with their school attendance – like a favourite slushy or play time together with a friend on their way home from school then that might soften the symptoms.
  • Likewise, in their hearing, make it clear to everyone that stay-at-home kids will be doing school work, with only minimal recess and lunch breaks and no device or computer time until after school.
  • You could even give priority on devices to the child who has been at school that day.
  • (If you read these tactics as bribes, you’re right but if they work why not?)

6) How do I help my child understand it’s ok for them to be returning to school while I am still working from home?   

Dr Irvine has some messages you can use to reassure your children: 

  • It’s very rare with this virus for kids to catch it! Parents and particularly grandparents are more vulnerable and if you go to work at the moment, you might catch it and bring it home.
  • Another important point, which even the Prime Minister has mentioned very recently, is that young children and Infants and Primary children are not as capable of e-learning as older kids and parents. Children need each other, and if you’re game…, add that parents need a break!

Be prepared that you might notice a regression in your child with their return to school 

Think back to when you first started your child at school or preschool. In returning to school next week your child is likely to behave much as they did then. You may see your child experience separation anxiety, and perhaps a regression in relationship and trust building, plus behaviour regressions.

“This is to be expected,” says Rebecca, “as children tell us with their behaviour that something feels different or isn’t working for them. You know now from experience that consistency, familiarity and resilience sees your child settle in no time. Once you have said goodbye with confidence, you must leave and let the teacher take it from there.”

The Worrywoos Can Help

Parents can  access the worrywoos Emotional Intelligence program, which Dr Irvine designed for Australian children and which is particularly pertinent for children in these worrying times. There are seven plush toy characters and accompanying story books each representing a different emotional challenge (eg worry, loneliness, anger, self image, self confidence, jealousy, insecurity): the program is designed to build confidence and resilience in young children. Many schools have the kits but individual items can be purchased either at the READ Clinic in Erina or online at Educational Experience. 

How are schools managing hygiene and social distancing? 

Rest assured, teachers are doing everything they can to implement social distancing and hygiene practices. If you have questions about this, contact your school.

Are you finding it difficult to make a decision on whether you return your children to school? 

Rebecca says, “It is important to be honest with your children about the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Our lives are not going to be the same as before and we need to work out a new normal. The only way children understand and accept new routines is when adults carry their decisions with confidence. Make your decisions based on your family values, teachers’ recommendations and or the government recommendations, and then swiftly let your children know so everyone knows where they stand.

If you are still unsure but you need to make a decision try not to project this stress on to your child. They can see you upset and not liking the decision making process, but they do want to see you make the decision, carry it out and back yourself regardless if it was the ‘right’ one for you. If you are not ready to return your children to school, don’t”.

Are you worried about your child falling behind academically?  

“Teachers will ascertain where your child is academically upon return,” say Rebecca Thompson, “You do not need to be concerned about this. Your job is to keep your child’s safety and security in check. Emotional development is your focus.”

Dr. John Irvine is a Paediatric Psychologist who has more than 40 years of experience working with children families and parents. He is the co-founder of Erina’s READ Clinic, which is the largest psychologist clinic on the Central Coast. John’s professional passion is to promote Emotional Literacy. 

Rebecca Thompson is an Early Childhood Consultant and founder of Stone & Sprocket. Through Stone & Sprocket, Rebecca runs seminars and live webinars on challenging behaviours and childhood development for parents, as well as workshops on programming, leadership and behaviour guidance for early childhood teachers.   

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