Staggered back to school

Managing school anxiety after lockdown is daunting for many families as children struggle to transition to face-to-face learning. But, for families who are facing multiple start dates for children in different years, it can be even more challenging. The difference in starting dates may cause feelings of jealousy, resentment and exclusion in some families. Not to mention, the logistical difficulties faced by parents and carers.

A recent analysis of 29 global studies found that children and youth were suffering twice the number of anxiety and depression symptoms as before the pandemic. These are very real issues for many children and young people.

For children who are suffering from school anxiety, staggered return dates create even more uncertainty.

So, what can parents to do help children with the transition to school when other members of the family might be starting at different times?

5 tips for a smoother staggered return to school:

Create a family calendar

Children often respond well to visual reminders of what to expect. You can make or buy a calendar (or use ours, below) and put each child’s return-to-school date on it.

If a child starts to feel anxious or out of control about what to expect next, you can look over the calendar together as a reminder of the plans to return to school. It will help to see what everyone else is doing as well.

Help kids make an individual calendar

Along with the family calendar, children often benefit from their own calendar. You can get creative and make one, or decorate a bought one with stickers or pens. Making a fun activity out of it will help your child remember to use it as an “anchor” when anxiety takes over because it will give them ownership and make it important.

You can write your child’s school start date on the calendar and find a fun way to cross off the days as they pass. Making it an enjoyable activity will help your child to feel better about the passing of the days until school begins again.

When anxiety or feelings of being overwhelmed arise, you can remind your child to look at their own calendar and compare it with the family calendar as a reminder of what’s happening next.

Plan some activities to put on the calendar

While families are in lockdown, nothing much happens!

But you need some activities to put on the calendar, right? Activities help kids to adjust to the passing of time as well as giving them something to look forward to. Studies have shown that having something to look forward to can help ease symptoms of depression in children and adults.

Even during restrictions, you can plan something that kids can put on the calendar. It could be a nice meal, a family birthday, a walk to the park, a zoom session, the start of daylight savings, Halloween, public holidays, or any other event that they can cross off the calendar as the return to school draws closer. If restrictions have eased, activities outside of the house can help kids adjust to interactions with others and being away from home.

Start a normal routine

Routines are one of the best ways to help anxious kids cope with transitions into other activities or locations.

But, during lockdowns, many families find that routines become relaxed, different or non-existent, which is usually fine at home. Things need to be different as parents and carers try to juggle work and home learning obligations.

However, it doesn’t work so well when a return to school is looming, and the sudden shock of a change in routine can be unsettling to anxious kids.

The best way to adjust to the change is gently and gradually. Once you know the school return dates, you can start adjusting the family routine until it comes into line with a normal school routine.

A crucial part of establishing a normal routine again is bedtime. During lockdowns, many families find that bedtimes are relaxed and inconsistent as there is less urgency to get up and do things in the morning.

A good way to begin getting bedtime back in the normal zone is to start by limiting or eliminating screen time two hours before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens inhibits the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Reducing screen time before bed may help kids to fall asleep easier.

Other ways to establish normal bedtimes include regular routines or rituals such as a bath, a bedtime story, or some other activity that happens consistently to help children wind down for sleep.

Get active

Exercise is one of the best ways to boost feel-good endorphins and bust anxiety. Exercise can help release tension from muscles, as feeling tense often contributes to anxiety.

Exercise also helps to change brain chemistry, boosting anti-anxiety neurochemicals such as serotonin and various endocannabinoids.

Choose a form of exercise that you can enjoy together and it will help you to stick to it, especially after you start to see the benefits. Swimming, walking, and cycling are all family-friendly forms of exercise that you can do together.

The best way to manage staggered school starting dates and the anxiety they cause kids is to be prepared, have some strategies in place and don’t expect too much. Oh, and be kind to yourself, too!

Written by

Deb Hopper

Deb is a paediatric occupational therapist with 20+ years’ experience. Her passion is to empower OTs and educators to demystify kids’ behaviour by providing easy-to-implement, hands-on strategies to transform struggling families and kids’ lives so they can thrive. Find out more about Deb here.

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