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Thoughts on dealing with the anxiety of returning to school

Over the past few weeks, we have seen endless debates about whether schools should reopen. Facebook has become a hive of home-schooling disasters and every man and his dog has posted home schooling effectiveness tips. We’ve seen everything from the ‘just spend time together that’s more important than schoolwork’ to the ‘they’ll fall behind!!!’ panic poster. With schools potentially opening again in a week the reality of school under the COVID19 cloud is about to hit. I wanted to share some thoughts on what the return to school might look like for a lot of kids.


In this post I thought I would write wearing my professional hat more than my personal one. I want to write about what we may see in our children when school goes back. Especially our youngest Reception and Year 1 children. Before I do that, I want to start with what I am seeing in all of the adults around me. From either side of the schooling fence both parents and teachers are doing more than we would have thought possible only a few months ago. I see parents and teachers wearing all of their hats once. Parents are trying to support their schools and children by hustling their kids to submit as much work as they can, and I see teachers doing metaphorical backflips to tailor their online classes to their student’s needs and attention span. All adults are doing heroic efforts to buffer their children and pupils. I see a lot of anxiety about how children are coping and worry over the potential long-term consequences of this academic disruption. What I want to highlight is the need to take into account the potential emotional responses our children will show upon their return to school. I want to focus on the necessary emotional support children will need to engage in before any work that we subsequently ask of them. No one is learning when they’re distressed, and I think we can anticipate a lot of distress when school goes back.


For many children, the return to school will be a delightful experience. It will mean reconnecting with friends and teachers and they will race out the front door ready to get back to normal. This however won’t be everyone’s experience. In fact, I imagine that it will not be a lot of family’s experience. The return to school is likely to stir up some anxiety for our kids, ourselves, and teachers alike. Emerging from the sanctuary of our homes and back out into public spaces is likely to be a little confronting. This is at odds with our feelings of wanting to break free from this lockdown. At the moment I’m feeling pretty stifled being at home. In my mind I am ready to get back into the world. A few weekends ago I took a very big adventure to Homebase. However, once I was there, I started to feel nervous. I suddenly remembered that the world was not as safe as I wanted it to be. I was confronted by the hand sanitizer at the door, the restriction of how many people could be in the shop at any one time, I remained vigilant about keeping a respectful distance from other shoppers and staff, and I had to stand a socially uncomfortable distance from the till. It wasn’t the outing I envisioned. I left feeling sad and a little angry. Something like this might be our children’s experience of returning to school. First, our children will be hit by the anxiety of going out into a world that feels unsafe. Over the past few weeks, we’ve had to teach them that the outside world is dangerous, and that staying home is a must. Soon we will go back on that claim and force them back into the world we just told them was unsafe. It’s going to a tricky transition for them. Second, once they are at school, they’ll discover it isn’t exactly the same experience that they knew before COVID19. There will be many differences whether it be the initial lack of other year groups, or the additional safety procedures the school is implementing. This lack of familiarity is likely to be uncomfortable. For children, the ‘not quite the sameness’ and anticipation anxiety will only be compounded by their desire to be near people they trust when they feel distressed. Some things you might start to see in the coming weeks include:

• Reluctance or refusal to go to school

• Increased clinginess in the morning

• Increased tearfulness

• Poor sleep on nights before school

• Temper tantrums on school mornings

• Feeling sick- especially stomach aches, headaches and any other ache related to muscle tension (sore legs, jaws etc)


We might be tempted to see these behaviours as signs of being naughty, attention seeking or just wanting to stay home because it’s easier than school. However, lessons from research into trauma and anxiety indicate that these behaviours are far more primal. There’s heaps of great neuroscience behind all of this, but I’m going to explain it at its most practical level. We’ve told our kids that the outside world is dangerous. We have told them this with every conceivable messaging tool we have. We’ve literally told them, then we have modelled it (by staying home etc) then we’ve subtly taught them again via our own anxiety. Right now, the most sensible thing their little bodies can do is react to the invisible danger. The lower parts of their brain in charge of bodily protection have swamped the parts of their brain in charge of clear thinking, reasoning, and emotion control. So, they’re on high alert. Their bodies are ready to respond to a threat and they will attempt to avoid that threat in any way they can. This might mean that they become hyper vigilant of their environment, paying attention to every small noise in and outside of the classroom. This is an evolutionarily response to threat as it protects them from anything that might jump out at them. However, it also makes them easily distracted and unfocused. Similarly, having your emotional engine revving makes you quicker to react to threat. You can pounce like a coiled spring if your muscles stay tight, your body focuses its energy on your circulatory system so you have heaps of lovely fresh blood and oxygen pumping through your body, and the parts of your brain that unleash anger are in the driver’s seat. However, this also makes your body hurt and feel sick, it’s exhausting and you’re constantly a little grumpy. Most kids will be functioning this way a little bit, and many kids will be in this mode a lot.


You know who else will be in this mode? Us. We’re likely to send our children back, or receive our pupils, with a fair amount of trepidation. Our stress centres will be singing. Plus, schools are getting thrown back into face to face learning with the same sort of lead time we got when we got thrown into online learning. Schools are trying to pull themselves back together while dealing with new safety measures, department for education requirements and all our own personal stuff. It is going to be hectic.

So, what’s the grand solution? The truth is there is no one great solution. I will attach a list of strategies at the end and you can feel free to choose any if they suit you. But the main thing I want you to take away from this piece is curiosity, knowledge and understanding. Question the behaviours you see in the children around you and question your response. Approach problematic behaviours with a pinch of salt. Assume that you are facing a frightened child rather than a disobedient one. We have far more sympathy for our children’s behaviours when they’re sick than when they are well. We can tolerate and nurture more whining and clinging when given a medical context. Right now, all of our souls feel a little sick. Take that empathy and patience and reframe children’s behaviours in your own mind. You will be amazed how powerful the presence of a sympathetic and curious adult can be on even the most violent behaviours.


Secondly, observe your own responses. We have all had those days when we feel like the whole world is just being irritating. However, when we break it down its far more likely that, as the common denominator, there is something about us that’s making us think everyone’s a jerk. Pay attention to days when you are feeling more vulnerable, reactive and in sensory overload (i.e. days when noises and touch annoy you more than usual). Acknowledge and notice any anger as it starts to build and be aware that you might be less patient and more reactive than you’d like to be. Awareness is key to implementing any change or strategy. When you approach aggressive behaviours from a perspective of understanding and empathy you help the person (whether it be a child or yourself) understand and let go of the emotional energy that is driving them. Expecting ourselves, or the children in our care, to get back to normal without acknowledging the ever-present weirdness we are currently living in is unrealistic. Returning to school will be hard on multiple levels (and joyful on others) so expect anxiety to rear its head in some weird and wonderful ways. Stay curious and stay empathetic.


Basically, you want to gradually expose your children to all things school related. You can try:


• Start your normal morning routine a week before school starts

• Visit school before it starts

• Start using language such as “when you go to school” rather than “if you go to school”

• Use visual aids such as calendars to count down to school starting.

• Discuss the social distancing changes from the letter to them a few times before school starts (i.e. you’ll still be doing lots of hand washing, your teacher will still be using the hand sanitiser, you will be in a classroom with just a small group of your friends).

We can also start to prime our children emotionally

• Give emotions names. These can be names such as “sad”, “angry” or “worried”. But they can also be descriptive words such as “shaky”, “fuzzy”, “spiny”, “gurgley”, “heavy”. To describe my trip to the shop I might say, “I was so excited to go, but then when I got there, I felt surprised and disappointed because it wasn’t the same. I felt a bit fuzzy the whole time, a bit wibbly wobbly and I was happy to come home. But it was also really fun to drive somewhere new and see the sun shining on the trees, that bit felt warm and nice”

• Check in with kids before school starts. Ask them what they’re looking forward to, what they think might be different, what they’re expecting. Validate any fears and correct any misconceptions.

• Problem solve with kids- if something is a particular worry, work with kids to help come up with a few solutions. Include kids in this problem solving.

• Use your own feelings as a model. Talk about your emotions honestly but talk about how the social distancing measure in place will make you feel more confident.

• Stay calm ourselves.

This point will likely be the most difficult. Stay calm ourselves. To do this in a genuine way we need to focus on ourselves as parents. Think about what you’re going to need to help support your child back to school. All this stuff takes both emotional energy and time. Plan your own time-out, even if it’s just sympathetic phone call to friends who can listen to you, or training your own internal voice to be compassionate to yourself.

• Communicate with school

Take the return to school slowly. It will be an exploratory process where you, your child and school all figure out what’s happening together. As teachers, we are focussing on those worries as a priority and we will help address them in every way we can. Even if it is just a message the night before to let us know about a particular discussion you’ve had, we will be here for your child and you.


I hope this can be of some use to you, whether you intend to return your child to school or not. I look forward to a time where we can all see each other again safely. In the meantime, be assured that I will do whatever is possible to make the return to school as safe and as nurturing as we can. Please get in touch with me if you have any concerns or worries.

Take care,

Mr Lester