(Let’s hope this time, we are permanently back at school…)
The range of feelings are OK
As we commence Term 4, we are all thinking about our children coming back to school in a few weeks. After having been away for so many months, our children’s experiences will vary. Some children, despite the restrictions on their lives, have relatively enjoyed the relaxed pace of lockdown life. They felt, by and large, quite safe, and adapted to their new online reality, which is their natural habitat anyways. Other children (and families) have found lockdown severely restrictive, a lot more challenging, perhaps even traumatic. Many children’s experiences fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Whatever your children have experienced, please know, all these feelings are normal, and can be managed and supported.
I would like to share a few common sense thoughts and ideas to assist everyone in the return to face-to-face learning as we slowly progress into a post-lockdown world.
Our team is here to help
Please remember that schools and educators are used to supporting children and families through changes and challenges in life. At Moriah we are extremely fortunate to have a well-equipped and experienced team of teachers, mentors, Heads of Year and Wellbeing, school psychologists and senior staff. We are here for you. Please reach out to your child’s class teacher or mentor if you or your daughter/son have any worries.
We have faith that the majority of our children and our families are resilient and will bounce back to an unlocked-down reality. We do need to be cognisant that we, and our children, have expended a lot of emotional energy adapting to lockdowns and return to normal, back, and forth, and there comes a time when we reach the limit of our emotional capacity and adaptability. This is especially true for our children. Even though most children tend to be present, to live in the moment, and go with the flow, their reservoir of emotional resilience and life experiences, their adaptability isn’t as developed as that of an adult. On the flipside, children are more agile and adapt to new realities far quicker than we can.
Children need to feel self-efficacy
Children need to feel a sense of self-efficacy. The sense that they are in control and they can make a difference to the path their lives take, or the outcomes of their circumstances. This makes them feel empowered, confident, and safe. The opening and closing of schools, and going in and out of extended lockdowns has the opposite effect on children. It disrupts their routine and expectations, makes them feel disempowered like they aren’t in control. It does the same to adults as well. The impacts of COVID have reduced children’s, parents’, and family’s sense of self-determination. We need to restore the sense of ‘I can control some fundamental aspects of my life’.
Start the Conversation
A positive first step for all parents is simply to open up the conversation with your children. Have a discussion with them about the things they can do and that are in their control. Their emotional reactions and feelings to things that are happening as well as the habits, routines, and behaviours they engage in. One of the things in their power is the ability to keep themselves as safe as possible. Good hygiene habits, regular hand washing, appropriate mask wearing, and reducing excessive mingling as we move past lockdown, all reduce the risk of getting sick and/or infecting loved ones.
To mask or not to mask
As an aside there is an argument within the Health Authorities as to whether it is better for Primary School children (under Year 6) to wear a mask.
A couple of weeks ago, our Moriah P&F hosted a COVID webinar, and amongst others, we heard from Paediatrician, Dr Phoebe Williams (click here to watch the webinar). In her opinion, when Primary School children wear masks, they continuously fiddle with their mask and touch their face. She opines that young children wearing a mask may actually create more problems than its worth. Others, including NSW Health, are of the opinion that rather than throw up our hands in despair and give up on Primary School children wearing masks, it is worth persevering. They assert, as it is proven that masks do reduce virus transmission, that it’s worthwhile to find child-friendly, comfortable, well-fitted masks. They believe we need to train (and constantly remind) our children not to fiddle with their masks or touch their face, and if they can’t, maybe it is better for them not to mask up at all.
Get tested – it reassures your children
If children are unwell, it’s worth getting them tested immediately, not just because it is NSW Health and school policy, it also reassures and empowers children not to be anxious about possibly having contracted COVID.
It is constructive to have open conversations with all children, in an age-appropriate manner, about vaccinations. They will hear about vaccines anyway, and having a conversation with them can help dispel any myths or misinformation they may have. Talk to them about your own vaccine experience, and the different family and community members that have been vaccinated; how the vaccines help keep everybody safer thus enabling us to re-open society and schools; how vaccines reduce the number of cases, and reduces the severity of the virus, as well as resulting in less hospitalisations. You can even point out that there are some people who oppose the vaccines, whether you agree with them or not. For children younger than 12 years of age, let them know that even though they can’t get vaccinated at this time, we are relying on the medical doctors and scientists who will make the expert recommendation whether to vaccinate children or not.
It’s a short sprint until summer holidays
It’s also worthwhile pointing out to our children that we are coming back to school just before the summer break. Some have suggested that we should just see out the year in lockdown and return to face-to-face learning in the new school year. The truth is that five or six weeks is a long time in a child’s life and school experience. In fact, it is actually an advantage to return to school just for five or six weeks, it is just long enough to reacclimatise our children and get them back into the routine of school, and to reconnect with their friends. It’s reassuring to know it’s only a short sprint until summer holidays. Even if there is some anxiety, or concerns about coming back, they know they will be able to make the short sprint until the summer.
Getting our kids emotionally ready to come back to school
The fact is that most people are feeling okay about returning to school. Based on the ‘Co-Space Study Surveys’ coming out of Oxford and Bristol Universities in the UK, there are approximately one third of parents and children who have some significant level of concern about returning to school after this second lockdown. Much of these concerns are centred around the uncertainty, safety, and possibility of opening and closing again. The UK is well ahead of us as they have experienced multiple and extensive lockdowns, and have gone back to school after their ‘Freedom Day’. They have studied the impacts of closing and opening up society, and the impacts on parents and children. Children worry about the return to school and tend to focus on the things that will be different. We need to help reframe, reassure, and refocus. Our educators will also assist our children as we come closer to the return. They will discuss what school life will look like. We will focus on what will be the same, and discuss the minor routines and variations that will be different upon their return. Most children will feel reassured simply by the discussion, and elimination of the unknown. We will send out more information, in addition to our Term 4 – Back to School booklet. Please make sure to read all the information we share as well as watching the informational videos that we send and discuss these with your children.
When children focus on the fact that they will be able to see their friends, and we are initially structuring our days with slightly longer break times for them to have that time back with their friends, they will feel more positive about coming back to school. The fun aspects of school will still be there, the art, music, sport and other co-curricular activities. Initially it will be a bit different, but we are employing extreme creativity and energy to ensure our children thrive, not just in pure academic and learning environments, but that they will have the ‘fun’ experiences of school as well.
Initially Year groups will be separated from each other to avoid mass mixing of students. There will be more structured and staggered play times and play spaces. In truth, these measures simplify the social environment, and actually scaffold children in their social interactions. Most children benefit from, and feel more confident in, a simplified play and social environment.
Family stress is normal
The UK studies made interesting observations about children’s mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic and return to school. In fact, they observed that one of the greatest elements impacting children’s emotional wellbeing was their parent’s emotional and mental health and wellbeing. They garnered feedback from 12,000 families who indicated that the number one stressor for parents was home- schooling children while simultaneously maintaining their own work commitments. Approximately two thirds of parents felt that was a tremendous challenge. They felt they couldn’t both adequately work and parent.
Different impacts on different children and families
Impacts on Primary School
There was an observable difference in age groups. Most Primary School families reported that their children displayed an increase of emotional health symptoms, some negative behavioural symptoms, hyperactivity, and increased concentration challenges.
Impacts on High School
In the High School sphere on the other hand, the vast majority of parents, and in fact, children, said there was a reduction in some of the negative emotional health behaviours and symptoms over time (i.e.: eating disorders, risk taking, addictive behaviours etc). They observed no real change in behavioural symptoms although there was a slight increase in impulsive reactions, but not to a problematic degree.
Most children reported that they missed their friends. They also reported that during lockdown they felt generally okay. In fact, some children thoroughly enjoyed socialising online rather than the free flow complexity of the face-to-face environment.
Impacts on mental health challenges
There are a number of children and young people who were struggling with mental health issues before the pandemic. An interesting finding was that a number of those struggling with minor to moderate mental health issues seemed to find lockdown life a bit easier without some of the demands of face-to-face school. Without the complex social demands and anxieties, combined with their ability to sleep in a bit longer and not have to face the commute to school in city traffic was liberating, and had measurable benefits on their emotional health.
Impacts on educational support
Children who received moderate educational support for individual learning needs, reported experiencing some level of stress alleviation. They enjoyed learning their own way, at their own pace, in an environment with less distractions than in a busy classroom. However, children (and families of children) with more intense learning and emotional needs reported that they found it far more challenging during lockdown. Some continued to go into school throughout or at least for part of the lockdown.
Sharing feelings in beneficial
These young people, who found lockdown beneficial, may have other concerns or worries about returning and going back to school. Some children have simply enjoyed learning on their own, at their own pace, in their own room, in their own space, dare I say – dressed as they want. Many of them enjoyed that immensely.
It’s important when discussing these things with our children to ensure we provide opportunities for sharing their feelings, and to acknowledge and validate them.
They may feel comforted hearing some of your own feelings, thoughts, and how you reframe and cope with the transition.
What to look out for; when to seek help
As parents we should be looking out for certain signs, behaviours or red flags; indicators that our children are struggling and may need help as they start to go back to school.
The first and perhaps most vital indicator to be aware of is a change in school attendance. Consistently getting to school on time is a protective factor. A pattern of failing to get to school, is a concern. A certain level of school resistance is normal, especially after such an extended lockdown, especially when it does require getting up earlier, travelling to school, and getting dressed in uniform every day. However, if that resistance becomes extreme, or you can see it deteriorating into a pattern of school refusal, it is vital that you discuss it with the school, either with the class teacher, mentor, Head of Year, Head of Wellbeing, Head of School, or with any of the school psychologists. They will suggest certain techniques, ideas, or programs. They may want to meet with you and your child, and they may provide counselling or refer you to a specialist.
Recognise and validate feelings
It’s important to recognise children’s feelings. Children’s behaviours are a result of their feelings. As parents we are well aware of the psychosomatic school resistance symptoms; the tummy ache, the headache etc; or the social-somatic symptoms of inflated social, emotional or friendship challenges. These ‘maladies’ aim to work on our emotional state as parents, to weigh on our conscience, with the objective of pressuring us to give in and allowing them to avoid school. Our job as parents is to use our intuition, to discern when to advocate for, protect and support our children, when to lean in and challenge them a bit, to push them beyond their self-imposed comfort zone; to face their anxieties and to realise that they can overcome them, and school is actually a safe and enjoyable place.
It’s important that if children do exhibit stress and anxiety, we seek to understand what’s going on for them. Just listen to them, empathise, validate, and make them feel heard.
A reliable approach to take when entering these conversations is simply to be open and curious. Try not to talk too much or to project your thoughts and feelings onto them; no judgements or evaluations at all. Simply seek to understand. Watch how therapeutic and cathartic it is for them. Children love being validated and listened to, they feel so empowered. Often they go on to resolve much of the ‘problem’ themselves.
Difficult difficult emotions or mental health challenges
Many times in my career, as an educator and educational leader, I have seen children and teens struggle with severe mental and emotional health challenges or acute distress. Often parents know nothing about the dark emotions or demons their children are battling. This is sometimes even more distressing for parents. So, how do you respond to your children when they open up with very difficult feelings and deep emotional turmoil or mental health issues? Our instinct as parents is to protect our children and make it better. We feel an urge to rush in and fix it for them, and when we can’t fix it, we panic! The truth is, we don’t need to fix anyone; panic is not called for, and it doesn’t help anyway. We just need to give ourselves and our children a bit of space, time, and empathy. The first step is to show them that we understand, that we are listening, and that we acknowledge how they feel. We are not saying that they are necessarily correct in feeling that way. But the fact is, that they do feel that way, and by listening and understanding, we can show them that we are ready to bear some of the burden with them.
We might not be able to fix it on the spot or even this afternoon, tonight or this weekend. Try a ‘leave it with me because I want to think about it’ approach, or an ‘I want to discuss it with others and seek advice’ approach. After thinking about, discussing it with school staff, or seeking professional advice, make sure to continue the conversation with your child. It’s amazing how grateful your child will be that you followed up and cared to continue the conversation. They may not volunteer to revisit or re-initiate the discussion, but they will be so relieved and reassured that you did.
The main thing to remember when dealing with serious mental health challenges with your children, is that you are not alone, we are here to help.
Increasing positive emotions and habits
It’s critical to remember all the general techniques and habits that increase positive emotions and wellbeing. By practising daily gratitude and mindfulness, embedding regular physical activity, by going out of our way to do things for others and involve our kids in chesed, we are gifting them with opportunities to increase their positive emotions. Even simply involving our children in household responsibilities and routines is of great benefit. When a child takes on a responsibility, even if they initially resisted somewhat, whether it’s loading the dishwasher, taking the dog for a walk, sweeping the floor, making their bed, folding the washing etc.; even if you don’t really need them to do it, and you can do a better job yourself, the fact that they are doing something for the family, beyond themselves, and looking after their own needs, presents them with an opportunity to become more selfless. Being other-oriented feels good. It increases their emotional health and wellbeing. These are really important things to embed back into our lives if we haven’t maintained them throughout lockdown.
Rely on the educators
You can rely on your children’s teachers. Our educators at Moriah don’t teach subjects or academics, they teach children. First and foremost, they look out for our children’s wellbeing. Our main objective is for every child in our care to thrive. The educators understand the emotional impact of lockdown and return to school. They will help your child(ren) and assist you in getting them back into the routine of school life.
The teachers are not going set up their lessons in a way that will disadvantage our children, such as jumping straight into difficult concepts. Their aim will be to rebuild confidence and scaffolding our children in reconnecting to their peers and school life.
If you as a parent detect an issue, please don’t hesitate to seek assistance from the class teacher or mentor. Even if you haven’t sought their advice or assistance before, it’s okay. It’s amazing to see the insights they have into your child and into children’s behaviours.
Obviously, if the teachers observe any concerns as your children return to school, they will raise them with you. It’s good just to listen to what the teachers are saying. Don’t get upset, don’t let your instincts take over. ‘How dare they?’, ‘How come I didn’t know about this?’, ‘Why didn’t my child tell me first?’, ‘This is so presumptuous of the teacher!’ Stop and just listen. First accept, then discuss and ask questions. At the appropriate opportunity, discuss it with your child and come back to the teacher; enlist their help, advice, and guidance, and if necessary, seek the support of senior staff or other professionals.
Teens rely on you to get them help
Research shows that the majority of teenagers, even those teenagers that aren’t help-resistant, rely on you, their parents, to make counselling or psychological support or interventions happen. Whether they are ambivalent, resistant, or keen, they need you to co-ordinate the counselling, to encourage and give them that little push to open up and make it happen.
We are ready to welcome your children back to school
At Moriah we have been anticipating going back to school for quite a while. We have been there done that, last time when we were out of school for a number of weeks in 2020. Yes, we did come back thinking we were past the worst of the pandemic. We were mistaken. This time we are now more hopeful that we are returning to school for good, and not going back into lockdown.
We believe in our children. We know they will thrive when they come back to school. We think it is excellent that they are coming back just in time to experience a solid number of weeks before the holidays and will then enjoy the summer and return rejuvenated for the new year.
We hope and believe that society has actually turned a corner. Now that we have reached 70% and soon-to-be 80% vaccination rates, and with the numbers of both infections and hospitalisations steadily dropping in NSW, we are looking forward to re-opening our school (and staying open!) and progressing beyond this pandemic.
Wishing you all a successful Term 4. May it be a term in which our children feel well, emotionally and physically, in which they feel cared for and safe. May they flourish, thrive, grow, learn, and succeed!
Look after each other, look after yourself, and have a beautiful term!
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.