It’s time to get ready to go back to school…but not everybody is keen to return!
This blog provides ideas to help manage the return to school when worries start to appear.
Returning to school after the long summer holidays can be a scary time full of uncertainty and unknowns which can bring many, many worries about new teachers and the inevitable tests for example, as well as the excitement of reconnecting with friends. Returning to school brings fears and worries not just for children and young people but also for parents/carers, teachers and support staff. Adults, including school staff often describe getting the ‘Sunday blues’ way before the Sunday before going back to work and tell me how it affects their sleep, their appetite and their general mood.
Lots of children and young people express worries about going back to school, but, for some children and young people it can become overwhelming and can spoil the enjoyment of the Summer holidays. The worries can present as behaviours such as upset or withdrawal, reluctance or avoidance of engagement with activities or anything school related including for example, uniform/equipment shopping or checking if PE kit still fits. The worries can also impact on appetite and sleep, just as it does with adults, and it can also effect toileting and at times bedwetting for example can make a reappearance.
One of the key transitions and the biggest challenges children face and tell me they worry about is the move to secondary schooling. The transition to secondary school is a significant change after 6 to7 years of one class teacher a year in one room to a change to many teachers, many rooms and expectations of greater independence and responsibility which is daunting for many children.
As an example:
Zara had enjoyed a two week holiday with her family at the start of the Summer holidays but in the weeks after she returned her Dad noted that she started to appear quiet, reluctant to go out and see friends and family and seemed to be eating less than usual. At bedtimes she would often cry and sob and express worries about moving to secondary school. Despite her Dad reassuring her that it was normal and it would be OK, Zara’s mood did not lift. Zara’s Dad contacted me and we met together to talk through Zara’s worries, we then mapped out Zara’s worries which were primarily focused on friends including if her old friends would leave her for new friends and if she would make new friends, practicalities such as finding her way around the school, uniform, PE kit and equipment for all the different lessons, bullying and toilets. After we grouped her worries, we then worked through her worries using a worry tree approach and problem solved what we could using the school’s website, contacting friends and developing a shopping list. We also talked about having a regular worry time just after teatime for Zara and her Dad to discuss any worries she may have and try to problem solve together using a worry tree approach. In addition, we talked about what Zara was looking forward to, what she may find interesting and exciting about secondary school. A week later Zara’s Dad reported that they had taken the shopping list and ordered items on line and gone to the shops to ensure she had everything she needed. Her Dad described that she appeared happier, she engaged with worry time and had gradually become more able to share her worries during the day. Zara told me that although she still had some worries she was looking forward to some new subjects such as Spanish and drama and was enjoying the last weeks of the holidays.
These are my three top tips to help prepare for the transition back into school life and manage any worries.
1. Talk about the transition
In preparation for a return to school it can be helpful to talk about what might have changed at school and what to expect on the first day. Talking helps us process our worries and fears.
Sometimes it can be easier for children and young people to talk about things that are bothering them indirectly, meaning that they can find it easier to talk when engaged in a side by side activity such as baking or dog walking rather than having a face to face conversation.
Children and young people often have lots of questions as well as potential worries. Listen. Ask permission to help problem solve together – go through the what ifs…
What if … I can’t remember how to write?
What if … there’s a test on the first day and I can’t remember anything?
What if … they won’t let me use the toilet?
What if … none of my friends come back?
When trying to answer worries and questions it’s useful to remember and use the 3-5 rule, meaning try to keep responses at 3 to 5 sentences, anymore can be too much!
It’s OK if you can’t answer the questions – make a list together and see if you can find the answer on the school website or by asking friends.
After going through the ‘what ifs’ it can be helpful to change the ‘what ifs’ into ‘if … thens’ which can be developed into strategy cards such as ‘if…then I will try…’ that can be kept in a pockets or written into a planner. For example, ‘if there is a test…then… I will try my best, I will breathe slowly and read and re-read the questions’.
For children/young people who have many worries it can be helpful to plan a regular discussion time or a ‘worry time’. Worries have a tendency to come out at bedtime and disrupt a calm evening routine ready for sleep. Therefore, it is helpful to plan worry time well before bedtime so that worries can be discussed and managed and don’t wait until bedtime to come out. Worry trees provide a helpful structure for discussion of worries, they follow a basic structure of:
Identify the worry and decide - can we do anything about it?
If the answer is no, let the worry go and think about something else.
If you can do something, make a plan together to deal with the worry, decide who will do what and when and then think about something else.
As an example see: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/docs/worrytree.pdf.
2. Plan together
Plan what’s needed:
Develop a list of what is needed. For example, a ‘My Checklist for Going Back to School’ including a list of clothes, shoes, equipment, school bag, PE kit and a planner/diary. Plan where to get them and tick off the list as you get them.
Plan for routines when school starts before school starts:
Routines help us feel safe and secure, big changes can unsettle us, going back to school after 6 weeks is a big change. Start to gradually implement changes to routines in the week or so before school starts back.
For example, begin to move bedtimes earlier, many children and young people can find managing sleep challenging during changes of routines such as school holidays and going back to school, The Sleep Charity provides helpful advice about developing sleep routines: Bedtime Routines - The Sleep Charity
Plan morning and breakfast routines and think about homework times as a family. It can be helpful to develop a family schedule together as a family with rules and routines, around for example, sleep (bed times and getting up times), bathroom times, food, technology, exercise, relaxation, chores, time to talk and homework times!
Homework and even thinking about homework can be stressful for children and young people as well as parents and carers. Plan it as part of the family routine -try to plan for the family to all be ‘working’ at the same time. Agree a homework area, where distractions are limited. Use timers - this can be a good time to teach children/young people how to use technology themselves to set reminders, timers and alarms for themselves.
3. Try to enjoy the end of the holidays!
Plan some family time for the days before returning back to school. Try to enjoy the end of the holidays together. To help reflect on the positives of the Summer it can be helpful to take photos and develop a scrap book you can annotate as a family so that you can look back together.
Thank you for reading – I hope this provides some helpful tips and the transition back to school is as smooth as possible.
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