How to make sure children are mentally prepared for the big return to school

Naomi Empowers, 33, is mother to Rhianne, 8, and Aaron, 6. They go to an independent school in west London

My mum is the headmistress of the school my children attend – in fact, it’s the school I attended. They absolutely love it. At collection time, no one wants to go home. 

Initially, when schools announced they were closing, I thought, “my goodness, how am I going to stay sane?” I’m a lone parent. But the school was wonderful in terms of its online provision. 

My feelings about the return to school have evolved. I’ve gone from “absolutely no way” to “OK, you guys need to go” to “Am I being a terrible parent for subjecting my children to this when we haven’t truly got this pandemic under control?” I remember seeing images of a school in France, where there were chalk lines drawn on the playground floor to keep children apart.

I was so disheartened. Our school sent out a survey to consult with parents about their concerns. I wrote that I was worried about the psychological impact on children of going back under those conditions. They’re young, it’s a family environment, they’re used to getting a hug from their teacher. 

To be unable to touch or get too close would be such a drastic change. I didn’t want them to feel rejected, and be unable to understand why they were being prevented from doing normal things. I’d rather keep them at home than send them back to such an environment.

I became more open to the idea of them going back as I realised that those images weren’t an accurate reflection of what would happen in September – though I’m not sure if that’s partly to do with me needing a break! I was juggling working from home with being the school cook, cleaner, teacher – it was a lot.

But then I read about schools in another country having to shut after a spike. My duty as a parent is to protect my children. So I don’t know what’s right – I feel as if I’m in an impossible situation.

 I have a friend whose daughter developed Kawasaki disease – a complication of Covid that children typically present with after contracting the virus. The school has taken precautions. There are hand-sanitising stations. There’s spacing between tables. But I know what I was like as a child. It doesn’t matter how far apart tables are! The children are excited about going back to school for the social element.

 But my daughter has said she doesn’t want to die. I wouldn’t say it’s a fear – it’s not a recurring conversation. And I always give my children the time and space to talk about whatever’s on their mind.

But for months we’ve been bombarded with messages about how dreadful this thing is. I don’t know, despite all the precautions, if it’s truly safe. The only way to find out is to get back and see what happens – and that frightens me. 

How to help if your child is anxious about the return to school

Look out for key indicators of anxiety – perhaps a question they are asking repeatedly, a change in sleeping or eating habits, or more challenging behaviour. While lots of children are looking forward to returning to school, many remain unsettled, says Dr Kilbey. “There’s a lot of anxiety among parents, and that can make children more anxious. So think about what your anxieties are and how you may be communicating them to your child.” 

Discussing your worries with your child will make them feel more anxious. Instead, says Dr Kilbey, “Parents can talk through their worries with other adults and try to find information to help address their concerns.” A helpful message to children is: “The consensus is that it’s OK to go back.” She adds: “Remind children that school is important.” What if your 10-year-old notices that a teacher is anxious? “Be honest. Say, ‘We’re still taking precautions to manage the virus, it’s been a difficult time, and grown-ups have been worried.’” 

Don’t dismiss their anxieties. Dr Kilbey says: “The temptation is to offer reassurance. That tends to reinforce the anxiety. You end up endlessly talking about it, which doesn’t move you forward. What anxiety needs is guidance and clear leadership. So try to contain your child’s anxiety.” This doesn’t mean denying it, or saying “it’s fine”, which is unhelpful. 

Rather, find out what it’s about, acknowledge their worry, get the relevant information (such as details of measures in place to keep them safe), and share that. You might say: “I can see this is worrying you, but we have a plan, and it’s going to be OK, because we’re going to do X, Y, Z and I’m going to help you.” It’s about giving calm guidance, and not being affected by their anxiety.

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