Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How can we support our children emotionally during the return to school?

Where do we even begin in terms of supporting our children emotionally through the return to school, asks Dr Michelle O'Driscoll in her weekly column
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How can we support our children emotionally during the return to school?

"While we wish more than anything for our kids to be back in school, learning with their friends, getting on with their lives and their development, we are also trying to weigh this up against the desire to shield them from unnecessary danger." Picture stock.

BACK to school is always a time of planning and preparation, mixed emotions (from excitement to dread) and a sense of transition.

This year, all these elements are heightened ten-fold. Our children have been out of school for many months, and this venture back to some sense of routine, while balancing the Covid-19 tightrope, is going to be daunting for children, parents and teachers alike.

As parents, we want the very best for our children. While we wish more than anything for our kids to be back in school, learning with their friends, getting on with their lives and their development, we are also trying to weigh this up against the desire to shield them from unnecessary danger.

Our children have been living through unprecedented changes, restrictions and challenges since March, and it would be naïve to think that bouncing back from all of that will be a linear process. It won’t happen overnight, and these coming weeks will be a work in progress in terms of settling in, even for the most resilient of our young people.

However, with the right support from both school and home settings, the impact of that transition can be eased.

So where do we even begin in terms of supporting our children emotionally through this? As part of the guidance provided by the government within the back to school framework document called Supporting the Wellbeing of School Communities as Schools Reopen, five key principles to support the wellbeing of our children have been outlined.

As well as being implemented within schools, they can serve as helpful signposts for us as parents as we play our role in navigating this new chapter.

Note that the below list serves as a universal foundation upon which to base our parenting efforts, but don’t hesitate to discuss more specific physical or emotional health/safety needs with your child’s teachers. Such needs may have been present prior to the pandemic, or could have emerged during it, and tailored supports can be explored in these instances.

There are also specific cohorts with additional needs which your school will be working to address, such as students starting school or heading into exam years. Learn more at www.gov.ie

The five principles are summarised below, and describe what we should aim for our children to be feeling with the right supports.

1. Feeling safe – Specific COVID measures across schools depend on the space available as well as the age-group of the children. As un-natural as they may seem, and as challenging as some of our young people may find them, maintaining focus on the reasons for these changes (i.e. safety of themselves and those around them) will help our young people to accept and adapt to them. And children tend to adapt better than we think.

Masks in retail outlets and public transport are now compulsory, hand sanitizer and Perspex screens are commonplace, which will have helped to normalise for younger children in particular whatever specific measures are now to be implemented in schools.

2. Feeling calm – As parents in the middle of a pandemic, feeling calm might be extremely challenging right now, as we are naturally worried about our children and how this transition will go for them.

As best you can, try to avoid passing your anxieties about back to school onto your children, and instead be available to chat with them about their own specific concerns as they present.

Keeping communication lines open will be vital; taking a little time each evening to discuss how children are finding the experience, letting them know that being anxious is normal, and reassuring them that teachers and parents have things under control will help them to remain calm, relaxed and regulated, and shift that burden of worry off their little shoulders.

3. Feeling I belong – After perhaps feeling somewhat adrift for many months, being back in a school environment should help to increase our children’s sense of belonging. The community that school provides will boost their social development and confidence.

Chat about what that feels like for them — sitting in a classroom again with teacher and friends, group activities (albeit socially distanced), and learning together rather than remotely/apart.

Help them to reflect on and appreciate that sense of belonging, and what a positive thing it is to now have back in their lives. And if they’re feeling the opposite of this e.g. detached or withdrawn, it’s important to flag and work through that too.

4. Feeling I/we can manage – the thought of returning to school may be daunting, but can still be managed by taking it one day at a time, and tackling it in bite-size chunks rather than as one overwhelming event. It’s a life skill in itself that’s worth honing!

Get children involved in practical preparation such as books, uniforms, creating their own hand hygiene pack, etc.

Focus on routines such as early bedtime, healthy breakfast and deciding what they would like in their lunchbox. This will benefit them physically as well as mentally, and is essentially paring things back to “controlling the controllable.”

5. Feeling hopeful – Remind children that while these changes may feel difficult, they should be hopeful that being back to school will be a positive experience overall, hopeful that things will go smoothly and will all work out, and hopeful that the important role they are playing now in terms of surpessing the virus will mean even further progress in the near future!

Remind children that while these changes may feel difficult, they should be hopeful that being back to school will be a positive experience overall.


Dr Michelle O'Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. She writes a weekly column in Women on Wednesday!


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