Relieving anxiety in students when they return to school

Across our global group of schools, many children and students are preparing to return to their classrooms. Some have returned already. It is inevitable that this step change may be causing some anxiety among families as we emerge from lockdown.

Across our global group of schools, many children and students are preparing to return to their classrooms. Some have returned already. It is inevitable that this step change may be causing some anxiety among families as we emerge from lockdown.

Anxiety is often felt at stressful times, but commonly when we feel we are under threat or experience great uncertainty. The continuing coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns across the world have meant that anxiety among children and families has been considerably heightened. Some of us may never have experienced it before and may be struggling to cope.

For so many of us, the global news changes daily and this forces us to continually have to deal with uncertainty; new challenges and changing rules, most of which we have never faced before.

In some cases, parents have had a harder time dealing with the implications of lockdown than their children, and some of their child’s anxiety may be picked up from them. But in other cases, that anxiety can stem straight from the child, and after being in the safety of home for many weeks, the prospect of a return to school, even one they love, can be very daunting.

So, it is not surprising that many children may also be anxious about returning to school. They may be nervous about some of the changes they’ll face – from different teachers to reduced freedom and time at home, the switch from distance learning or even about their safety. They may not express their anxiety openly or even talk about it.

Anxiety levels are creeping up

At the start of the pandemic in the UK, as an example, a survey by IPSOS Mori showed that one in five people were concerned about anxiety because of the pandemic.1

Ongoing recent research from the University of Oxford’s global Co-Space2 study explores how families are coping during the pandemic and how parents can help their children’s mental health. In the UK alone, over 10,000 people took part. Findings show that:

  • in one month of lockdown, parents of 4-10-year-olds saw increases in their child’s emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy, worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry.

In response, Tom Madders from the mental health charity Young Minds said: “For those young people, going back to school after a long break may well be tough, and it’s vital that there’s a re-adjustment period where wellbeing is prioritised.”

A recent Chinese study3 of two primary schools in Hubei province, research found that:

  • 22.6% of students reported having depressive symptoms after the Coronavirus outbreak.

Another recent study4 published in a US journal found that children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and probably anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends. This may increase as enforced isolation continues.

It is obvious from this research that increased anxiety because of the implications of the pandemic is now more common, but it’s important to remember that this anxiety is an absolutely normal reaction to a highly unusual situation.

Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan, an NHS England Mental Health Specialist, recently said: “Children and young people may be experiencing a variety of feelings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including anxiety, distress and low mood, and it is important to understand that these are normal responses to an abnormal situation.”

What to look out for as a parent

It’s not always easy to tell how your child is feeling, particularly about returning to school, but some of the signs of anxiety to look out for include:

  • reassurance seeking
  • trouble sleeping and bedwetting in younger children
  • clinginess
  • lack of appetite
  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • a change in attitude and a lower mood
  • sudden aches and pains
  • negativity about school.

Some children will take their return to school in their stride, and others will appear fine at first but only start to display symptoms when they step through the door of their classroom. Rest assured that our teachers and schools are already starkly aware of these signs; they also know that there will have been a huge variation in students’ experiences of lockdown. 

How are our teaching staff prepared for anxiety in children?

Our International Schools Partnership (ISP) community is always guided by the principle that We treat everyone with care and respect. We look after one another, embrace similarities and differences and promote the wellbeing of each other, and currently, this has never been more important to uphold.

ISP staff are there to support students of course, but we’re also there for our wider community too. Not only do our schools have many trained and qualified counsellors, psychologists and nurses to offer emotional support, but our Regional Wellbeing Teams are available to call students, staff and families to talk through any emotional issues or concerns they may have. Our international group of schools creates one community which allows us to be responsive to events as they happen and to tap into a large support network of advice and resources as we work together.

The safety and wellbeing of our staff, students and their families is our top priority in all our schools. As your children return, you can rest assured our staff will be:

  • mindful
  • building and re-establishing connections
  • communicating good health behaviours
  • positive in their approach
  • offering opportunities to talk and listening to concerns.

Reassurance is key – we are part of their support network

Every child has his or her own unique way of expressing emotion. They need to express and communicate their feelings in a supportive and safe environment. You can reassure your child that this is what they will be returning to at school.

ISP teachers will be aware of their students’ experiences at home. They are aware that even within one class these experiences will be different and that students have varying degrees of resilience. Some will have coped better than others and that will affect how easily they transition back. Some students won’t be able to adjust quickly to learning in a classroom setting whereas others will be keen to make up for lost time. All our schools will be working to overcome these challenges individually but with a collective common goal: rebuilding confidence to learn through care and respect. 

Things you can do to combat your children’s anxiety

  • Whatever their worry, it’s important to make time to talk to your child and let them know you’re listening. Try not to dismiss worries, no matter how trivial.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question your child asks, it’s fine to tell them you don’t know but will find out. Advice is changing so regularly, but you can reassure them that everyone is working together to find solutions to problems.
  • Remind your child about the positives and how, when they are back in school, they will be able to continue their amazing learning and see their friends again.
  • Prepare your child for how their school day might be different. If you are changing your routine in any way, let them know and reinforce the messages for how their environment at school will change.
  • Remind them that their school will only open when it is safe to do so, that their teachers will be doing everything to ensure their safety and that they will make sure they are following the rules to protect their health.
  • If you think your child might be anxious when you leave, arrange with the school to have a friend or familiar staff member to meet you.
  • Help your child find positive ways to express anxiety. Playing, drawing or other creative activities can help with this.
  • Help your child with learning they bring home but be sure to make lots of time for activities as a family.
  • Be calm yourself – children will pick up on any anxiety you display. Perhaps even practise meditation or breathing exercises with them to help them tap into tools when they are not with you.
  • Talk to your children about positive aspects of their day. Talk up the fact that they are back with friends after so long.

Most importantly, remind them that they are not alone and it’s okay to feel anxious. Together, as a global community, we will come through stronger, support each other and learn from the experiences we have collectively faced to turn them into opportunities. 

Things you can do to combat your children’s anxiety

  • Whatever their worry, it’s important to make time to talk to your child and let them know you’re listening. Try not to dismiss worries, no matter how trivial.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question your child asks, it’s fine to tell them you don’t know but will find out. Advice is changing so regularly, but you can reassure them that everyone is working together to find solutions to problems.
  • Remind your child about the positives and how, when they are back in school, they will be able to continue their amazing learning and see their friends again.
  • Prepare your child for how their school day might be different. If you are changing your routine in any way, let them know and reinforce the messages for how their environment at school will change.
  • Remind them that their school will only open when it is safe to do so, that their teachers will be doing everything to ensure their safety and that they will make sure they are following the rules to protect their health.
  • If you think your child might be anxious when you leave, arrange with the school to have a friend or familiar staff member to meet you.
  • Help your child find positive ways to express anxiety. Playing, drawing or other creative activities can help with this.
  • Help your child with learning they bring home but be sure to make lots of time for activities as a family.
  • Be calm yourself – children will pick up on any anxiety you display. Perhaps even practise meditation or breathing exercises with them to help them tap into tools when they are not with you.
  • Talk to your children about positive aspects of their day. Talk up the fact that they are back with friends after so long.

Most importantly, remind them that they are not alone and it’s okay to feel anxious. Together, as a global community, we will come through stronger, support each other and learn from the experiences we have collectively faced to turn them into opportunities. 

Further reading:

References:

1 COVID-19 and mental wellbeing – Ipsos MORI

2 Emerging Minds Co-SPACE Study – 4th update. UKRI Council

3 Mental Health Status Among Children in Home Confinement During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak in Hubei Province, China. JAMA Pediatrics

4 Rapid Systematic Review: The impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

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