Mental HealthWellbeing

Getting Children Back to School

Girl flying through the sky on a book, back to school.

Students are returning to the classroom, but some may feel anxiety or uncertainty while others are excited to get back. Teacher Michelle Reynolds offers advice to families for the transition back to school.

 

As our students head back to school, we need to acknowledge the super human effort of our parents, teachers and especially the students themselves. Children usually experience a mix of emotions when it comes to going back to school after a long break. Our lives have been disrupted and pushed into a new normal for at least the last six weeks. Getting back into some sort of school time routine can be a mammoth effort after time off.

Emotions involved in returning to school will likely range from feeling really excited and eager to concern, fear or anxiety. You can read more about anxiety in our children here. Getting butterflies or general worry about going back to school is very normal.

Usually when returning to school, some of the biggest worries of our young students are feeling left out, feeling unsure about what to do or saying goodbye to their caregiver at drop off. The older student’s concerns are more likely to be about their school work and assessment. Some students may feel lonely and isolated and the effort to re-connect may feel too daunting. Overcoming challenges and regulating our emotions is resilience building! You can read more about raising resilient children here.

Supporting parents, children and young people with back-to-school challenges can help reduce the worries, the butterflies, the stress and anxiety.

The following might help:

1. Set up a back-to-school routine as fast as possible

Create structure about going back with a school morning routine, especially the waking up, getting dressed, getting organised and packing their own bag ready for the day. Be guided by your knowledge and history of what best supports your child during times of change and transition.

Many families make a visual “Getting Ready” list.

You could include:

  • what needs to be done each day for school like getting up, eating breakfast, dressing themselves
  • what help does your child need from you to get ready?
  • what they can do on their own?

Establish these together.

The first week back can cause disruption as once again, normal life changes to the new normal. Don’t forget healthy habits for a good, long night’s sleep, lots of play and running/exercise time after school and shop well for the school lunchbox so there are no unnecessary stresses about providing healthy food at school! Having a consistent bed time and wake up time helps too.

 

2. Talk positively about going back to school

Most children deal with some level of stress or anxiety about school. They have insight into their school experiences, so find out what worries them by asking them directly.

You can offer support by normalising experiences of worry and nerves. Reassure your child they are not alone in their worry, and they will overcome this once they have transitioned back and settled into school again. Worries and courage can actually go together.

Depending on your child’s age, you can also try the following to help:
  • Early years/pre-school – write a social story or get them to draw pictures of what school will look like now they will be back with their friends and waving goodbye to parents at the school gate
  • Primary years – maybe students can plan to arrive at school together and walk in with a buddy. They could have some news and ideas ready to share in class about their time spent in remote learning

 

3. Help create a sense of school belonging

A sense of belonging at school has a significant effect on academic success and student wellbeing. Parents can facilitate positive attitudes about transitioning back to school by setting an encouraging tone when talking about it and showing real interest in their child’s school life and school work.

 

4. Look out for signs of stress

Sometimes it is easy to miss the signs of stress and sometimes the signs can be obvious!

Parents can spot stress if their child (depending on age):
  • is more clingy than usual and struggles to say goodbye
  • appears restless or cries, and has difficulty explaining why or regulating their emotions
  • shows an increased desire to avoid activities through negotiations and deal-making
  • tries to get out of going back to school and may start feeling ‘sick’
  • retreats to thumb sucking, baby language or increased attachment to favourite soft toys (for younger students).

Talking to your classroom teacher or school engagement team about what is happening means that together we can work on a strategy of support.

 

5. Encourage questions

Encourage questions children and teens may have about returning to school and the new things they will complete. What will be the same? What will be different? Most importantly, let your child know nothing is off limits to talk about. Set up a regular chat time; in the car after pick up, family dinner time, or perhaps the bedtime reading chat. Talking about the challenges and changes, the similarities and the differences, is an important discussion which can help with the transitioning back-to-school nerves.

Transitioning back to school will be easy for some and a lot harder for others. Love, time, understanding and potentially a lot of reassurance will be needed. Keep the talk positive, and keep the talk open. And let your child’s teacher know if you have any concerns.

Learn more about caring for your mental health during a crisis here.

You can find Australian Government digital mental health resources here.