The phased return to school by some secondary students this week and Class Four pupils next Monday, is bound to be met with a mixture of emotions from students and their parents. While some students may be excited, happy or relieved at the prospect of seeing their friends again, or completing/sitting exams, others may be feeling anxious, fearful or even angry.
Senior Psychologist with the Ministry of Education’s Student Support Services, Juanita Brathwaite-Wharton, has provided a few expert tips for coping with the reintegration of children to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the first things to keep in mind, she says, is that children feed off of the emotions of the adults around them.
If parents want to allay their children’s concerns about going back to school, they have to project optimistic feelings about the return to the classroom to help them build resilience and feel comfortable.
First off, Mrs. Brathwaite-Wharton suggests parents and teachers help children make a smooth transition by preparing them for what to expect when physical school resumes. There should be no surprises.
“Talking openly about when and why things are happening will help children to make sense of what is going on around them. It is important to make sure that they know what is going to happen as far as is possible. This will help them to feel safe and secure.”
Additionally, after they return to school, the senior psychologist underscores the importance of getting them back into a routine.
She says new routines should be taught early and children should practice them repeatedly, particularly during the first week of school.
She advises parents to adjust bedtimes and waking times gradually (as these may have changed during lockdown) so that children are ready for the school day.
One of the ways to help ease anxieties is by listening to how children are feeling and keeping the lines of communication open, she adds.
“In the absence of factual information children often imagine situations far worse than reality. Encourage them to talk, listen well and acknowledge their fears. A failure to do this may result in added anxieties. Children can find it difficult to talk about how they are feeling.
“They may not have the words or know what to say. In conjunction with the discussion around a drawing exercise, for example, it would be helpful to offer prompts and open questions as a starting point to elicit further conversations.”
Mrs. Brathwaite-Wharton recommends some questions parents could ask to help get the conversation started on how children feel about going back to school:
- What sort of thoughts are you having regarding going back to school?
- What would make you feel safe in school?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What might be hard for you?
- What do you think will be ok?
Once they are back at school, she says teachers can do daily check-ins at the beginning and end of each day to see how they are managing and to determine if they are settling into the new ‘normal’.
Parents can also do similar check-ins at home, the psychologist points out. “They may find that asking their children about their day can often lead to a shrug and ‘I don’t know’. Again, offering them prompts to start conversations can help them to open up and share some of their feelings more easily.”
Some questions she recommends include:
- What was good about your day?
- What was difficult about your day?
- What went ok today?
- How are you feeling about being back at school now?
The Senior Psychologist acknowledged that some children may need lots of reassurance about returning to school.
As a result, she says it will be important for parents and teachers to communicate effectively so that families know what to expect and what safety measures schools are putting in place to protect their children.
If children are anxious about going back to school or separating from their parents, Mrs. Brathwaite-Wharton says it can be helpful to remind them of the things they enjoy at school.
She suggests talking to children about what will be the same, and what has changed during times of transition to help increase their sense of stability and comfort.
She also urges teachers to be on the lookout for children who had emotional concerns before COVID-19 and those that may be personally affected by the pandemic, including children of front-line workers, those that had bereavements, those who had family members who were/are ill, those whose family income may have been impacted significantly, and those who may have experienced family strain or discord due to the lockdown.
Students who may be in the need of additional support should be referred to their primary school counsellor or to Student Support Services at 535-0853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teachers and students may find additional support from Network Services under the special project with UNICEF to offer mental health support systems to schools.
They may be reached at email@example.com or 228-7773/228-3056; or Eutelmed (an international support system) promoted by PAHO and UNICEF. They may be accessed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (Access Code UNICEF-ECA).