The majority of children across the U.K have been learning at home since the start of this year due to the pandemic. Schools in England are now set to re-open fully to all pupils from March 8th and whilst many children are excited about their return, there are also children for whom the return to school will bring challenges. This may be due to the huge change in their routine (once again) that they are facing, anxiety of separation from parents whom they’ve spent all their time and also worries over COVID-19. Some children will also unfortunately, have experienced bereavement over this difficult time which may inevitably make the transition back to school exceptionally difficult.
I think it’s important to note, that one thing that’s not being talked about, is the impact on the children who are already at school. It’s not just children returning to school who face huge changes from March 8th, children who have been in school (due to be classed as ‘vulnerable’ or key worker children) may be anxious about their classroom dynamics changing from a small, quiet class to a much busier one when everyone returns. This may be particularly the case for children with EHCPs who may have been in school. They are likely to have developed strong bonds with new friends and teachers which may be disrupted when their classmates return. And lots not forget that changes in routine can be particularly difficult for autistic children.
So what can we do to support them?
As a former teacher/SENDCO I’ve witnessed the difficulties that many children with SEND face when they return after the summer holidays and this return after school ‘closures’ will likely be an amplification of this situation. But schools are parents can help to support children on their return to school in a number of ways.
I’d you’re looking for resources, have a read of our blog post of recommended resources to help children settle back to school including a free social story to download.
How can the School help?
Whilst the pandemic has been awful and has impacted on families in different ways, one positive for a lot of families has been the development of positive relationships between home and school. Having daily video calls with school and regular emails providing feedback from schools, has for many, done wonders in building some fantastic home-school relationships. And we all know how vital these relationships are. I would therefore stress the importance of continuing to embrace these relationships by keeping up the communication between home and school. Not only will this help with the transition back to school but if families and schools work together it will help support children more effectively in the long run.
Many children will only have had contact with their friends over a screen for the last couple of months and some not at all. Therefore, it is imperative that school focus on friendships and social skills on children’s return. Building strong friendships will also help children feel more settled in their new routine at school. Ways to help with this could be spending more time carrying out classroom games that involve team work, pairing children up for activities and learning about the importance of being a good friend through stories and activities.
Additional support is going to need to be provided for children who may have had a difficult time at home due to the pandemic. This could be as a result of parents losing their jobs due to the economic downturn, parents being unwell and bereavements of family and family friends. Schools are well versed in providing support for children in difficult circumstances but they will need to prepared for a potential increase in the number of children requiring this type of support.
For children who find the change in routine particularly difficult, for example some autistic children it will be vital that schools share any changes to the school day, classrooms, routine, teaching staff etc. with the children in advance. This could be done via social stories to help children prepare effectively for the changes and reduce any anxiety. For some children it may be necessary to be flexible and offer half day attendance initially to help them transition back to school successfully. Again, it’s going to be key to facilitate communication between school and home to help with this transition.
What can families do to help?
It’s not just schools that can help support children in their return to school, families play a huge part in this too.
I think, personally, one of the most important things families can do is to ensure their children know they are being listened to and their worries about returning are valid. This means not dismissing worries by saying “oh don’t worry about that” or “don’t be silly, it will be fine”. But instead telling children that what they are worried about is understandable and that there are things in place to help.
Talking through the upcoming changes with older children can be really helpful too, explaining how the school day will differ from before and what they can expect. For younger children it may be helpful to initiate conversations/thought about the changes through play. For example, you could set up a ‘play school’ with their toys and act out the changes to the routine they will be met with. This can be particularly useful for getting an insight into how children and feeling and their worries, as they may act out a specific scenario with their toys that is playing on their mind. For example, they may pretend their toy is worried about leaving their mum at the start of the school day, if this is somethings they are worried about themselves. It’s incredible how much you can learn, watching a child play!
Most importantly, families can help by trying to be positive in the words they use about school. If children see our own worries, they are more likely to share them. Instead focus on the exciting parts – for example, the friends they will see, the lessons they enjoy and their favourite teachers.
What about the children still in school?
As I mentioned, there’s been a lot of focus on the return of children to school but little, as far as I’m aware, about the huge changes the children currently in school face when their classmates return. Again, we can support these children by focusing on the positives, talking through the changes they will see, listening to their concerns and putting in place sessions to help develop friendships with returning classmates.
Although, the fully reopening of schools may be a difficult time for some children, I think we must remember that children are incredibly adaptive and over the last year have shown an incredible strength despite all these changes. And with support from home and school we can make a real difference to help this transition to be a happy and successful one. After all, our children deserve the very best after such a difficult year.