How to prepare your child for returning to school during a pandemic

Is your child worried about returning to school during a pandemic? Here’s how to prepare them.

I’m not sure who is more excited in our house right now. My two teenage boys who are returning to school next week? My military husband who is returning to the office for three days a week? Or me who will be able to work from home in peace without having to guard the fridge from constant attack? 

Every year, as the summer holidays draw to a close, there is always a sense of desperation in the air. On one side there are the parents desperate for the holidays to end and for their treasured offspring to return to school and on the other side is those who are desperate for the summer not to end as time has gone too quick.

But this year it feels slightly different. Whilst most parents I’ve spoken to are more than happy for their children to return to the sanctuary of friendships, study, and extracurricular activities that school provides, the unspoken question of whether it is safe hangs in the air.

Will the environment be virus free and healthy? Will my child be forced to wear a mask negatively affecting their mental health? Will the school ensure they have as limited contact with others as possible or will they experience as full an enriching programme as before?

The questions are all valid, varied and completely depend on the attitude of risk of the parents, the vulnerability of the family unit and how well the school has communicated their plans for a safe school environment.

It doesn’t matter which side of the “should schools be open?” fence you are on, schools, colleges and universities are reopening and it’s no coincidence that search engines are busy answering common queries such as “how safe is the return to school?”, “what should my child expect after lockdown?” and “how will the school react if a child becomes ill?”.

Five of the best ways to help your child mentally prepare for their return to school

So what can you do to help make the transition as easy as possible – for you and your child? Here are five of the best ways to help our children mentally prepare for the long-awaited return to school.

1) Restore some structure to their day

Remember how we used to live before schools were closed, online learning became a daily battle ground and we worked from home in our pyjamas? It’s time to reintroduce some of our old routines.

General screen time should be reduced, family meal times enjoyed and uniforms and school equipment should be located or acquired as necessary.

Bedtime should be earlier, alarms set for the morning and a ‘no screen’ rule introduced an hour before bedtime. Consistency is the key here as it can take at least a week to reinstate healthy sleep patterns.

This might not be as easy as it sounds for our young people to accept, as acknowledged with humour by David Clark, the Headmaster of Battle Abbey School, in his latest letter to parents:

“Before signing off, I think it’s worth reminding you of the need to reacquaint your children with the upcoming rhythms of school life. For example, you may want to ask them, gradually, to start getting up that bit earlier so that their body clocks can readjust to school timings and routines – and best of luck with that!”

2) Organise reunions with their peers before the start of term

Many young people have experienced several months of lockdown, isolation and social distancing, so it’s only natural that some of them may feel anxious about mixing with large groups of people again.

Sport is a good way to re-establish and normalise team activities, play dates for younger children can be organised to re-introduce relaxed social fun, and teenagers should be encouraged to further develop their independence and busy social lives, which they were probably quite resentful at losing. 

3) Discuss what school will look like

Researching and understanding the new routines at school will be essential in the days before term starts. Will the start & finish times be staggered? How will the year groups be organised? Will they be limited to one area of the school? Have the rules about uniform been changed?  

Sharing school correspondence may also be appropriate, especially with older students. It could also be worth discussing how friendship groups might have changed as a result of the long period apart, that extra classes after school and at weekends may be required to catch up with missed learning and the full choice of sport and drama clubs may also not be available.

Discussing these issues beforehand can help to avoid disappointment and also be a good time to remind your child that this could be an opportunity to try something new!

4) Remind them about hygiene and social distancing

Most students will be going back to a school environment they’ve never experienced before – one with social distancing and a heightened awareness of germs. It’s important to discuss with your child the new measures that will be put in place but also to put any risk into context.

Reassure them that the ‘new ways’ are about keeping everyone safe as a community. Encourage your child to look out for their own wellbeing, as opposed to worrying about whether the people around them are following the rules.

Parenting expert Dr Kathy Weston advises us to “encourage your child to focus on themselves, by doing what they can to socially distance and wash their hands. We can’t control what others do but we can control our reaction to it”.

5) Encourage them to vocalise their concerns and goals

Children tend to express their feelings through their behaviour, suggests Dr Nneka Ikeogu, a child psychologist. Look out for any resistance to returning to a routine, be on hand to give lots of cuddles and be available for them to discuss their feelings before bedtime.

Be mindful of where and when you discuss your own concerns and worries. Parental WhatsApp groups spread anxiety and it trickles down to the children. We need to emphasise to our young people that, while disruption can be difficult, it is also a part of life.

Don’t forget to inform school about any big events that have occurred, for example, death, divorce, illness, job loss, etc. Limit younger children’s exposure to the news and encourage them to feel excited about school.

The summer holidays are a great time to relax and have fun, but a new term means they should be setting goals, becoming more independent and taking on more responsibility. 

Be positive and creatively supportive of their wellbeing

However your child returns to school, it will be unchartered territory – exciting for some and unsettling for others.

The best we can do for them is to be positive, creatively supportive of their wellbeing and remember that their resilience and characters will be all the stronger for their experience over the last few months. Good luck and enjoy the peace!

Love more tips to help send your child get their new term off to a great start? Download the free advice sheet 5 tips for a confident start at secondary school.

Caroline Would is a RAF veteran and founder of AD ASTRA Coaching Mentoring Training, which “unlocks the confidence, happiness and potential of young people”.

She provides 1:1 programmes, workshops and online training courses and has worked with individuals, schools and organisations in the UK and across South East Asia.

Caroline also runs a free mentoring and confidence-building programme for year 11 girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, funded by local businesses and organisations.

Photo by Scott Webb