NEW uniform, books, stationary, mask, sanitiser. Returning to school will be like nothing we have ever faced before.
With the prolonged school closures, there will be a lot of uncertainty for students as they begin the new school year. For some, it will be an exciting time, getting back to a daily routine and seeing their friends again, albeit in a restricted context.
For others, it will be a nervous time, many students of all ages will be anxious about things such as, is it safe to return? Will I be able to adjust back into learning? Or even where will I have my lunch?
Whether your child is returning to primary or secondary, the practicalities of the daily routines in schools will be changed dramatically. There will be a lot of focus on hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and social distancing in secondary schools.
Although these things are vital for the health and safety of students, they could also cause some distress and will take time to become routine and normal for them. However, there are lots of things that parents can do to support their child over the coming weeks.
Understandably, many students and parents might have concerns about returning to school.
While many will be delighted to get back to a normal routine, others will be worried about various different things. Some might be worried about Covid-19, becoming ill themselves or bringing it home to a vulnerable family member.
Other concerns that students will have include, meeting classmates after such a long absence, and will schools be closed again? And how will the state exams work this year?
I’ve even spoken to students who are worried about their job prospects after school, given the recession this crises has brought with it.
These are just a few of many concerns students have, and as parents we need to support them through the difficult emotions and stresses that they will experience.
Uncertainty creates fear and anxiety, it’s why we all thrive in routine, especially young people. When we feel difficult emotions, many of us, including our children try to dismiss these uncomfortable feelings and distract ourselves in any way we can. However, this can lead to more problems in the future.
As parents, it’s important that we support young people to acknowledge and discuss these emotions. Although it can be difficult, naming and discussing challenging emotions reduces the power they have over us and allows us to plan strategies to deal with them in the future.
Although the reopening of schools is a positive development in many ways, however we look at it schools will not be the same places that students left last March.
Younger primary students will notice less of a change as they are not required to social distance, but upper primary and secondary students will have their normal day to day interactions with classmates hugely curtailed and monitored. Classrooms will be stripped of much of the resources that previously gave classrooms that welcoming touch.
Tensions will be high when students return and it’s important that any student feeling overwhelmed asks for help. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice any parent can give their child.
Many of us are slow to ask for help ourselves, but if my years in teaching has taught me anything, one of the things teachers love most about their jobs, is supporting students in distress.
Many of us, including young people, have lost a lot of our daily and weekly routines over the past six months. Returning to school will bring a big part of that back into our lives. However, it’s important that if your child has fallen out of their routines, they begin building these back up again. Without the necessary hours of sleep, sufficient nutrition and regular exercise, students will not be able to engage fully with their learning.
At the forefront of the decision to reopen schools, is our young people’s education and wellbeing. There is no doubt that our wellbeing has been impacted over the last number of months.
When our physical safety is threatened, our friendships distanced and our sense of freedom and personal choice in what we choose to do in our lives restricted, our wellbeing will inevitably suffer. As society opens up and we can go back to our “new normal” lives, it’s important to acknowledge that young people’s lives have been affected also.
In schools, there will be a focus on new health and safety procedures for daily school life but also a focus on our students’ wellbeing. Parents can support this by encouraging their children to openly discuss this topic and help them to make positive decisions in relation to their own personal wellbeing.
Resilience is developed by overcoming challenges in our lives, as we all build our collective resilience, let’s not leave young people behind and acknowledge the sacrifices they have had to make, and point out how well they are doing in overcoming them.
When we feel a sense of control over our lives, we feel safe and confident to take on whatever challenges life might throw at us. It is therefore important that we help young people to focus on what they can control in their lives.
A good way to begin this is to help them to organise themselves for the return to school. Making lists of things they will need, discussing what the morning routine before school will look like and allowing them to plan fun activities will all help alleviate the worries many students will have over the coming days. Since this crisis began, we have seen massive social cohesion all across the country, with communities coming together to help each other.
Despite what we often think, crises bring out the best not the worst in people. The same will be true of our young people. As well as the support of their parents and teachers, they will also help each other, to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.
Alan White is a second level teacher at Bishopstown Community School and Wellbeing Author. He also facilitates wellbeing workshops. See www.changeswellbeing.ie