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Back to school: how to get your children ready for the new term
By Heather Rutherford
17 August 2021
The days are getting shorter, the pencil cases are on display and it’s time to think about the new school year. Whether your children are heading back to a familiar place or starting a new school, there is much that we can do over the coming weeks to help our children be emotionally and practically prepared.
We’re all hopeful that the new school year will bring a much-needed sense of relief and normality. Our children and their teachers have shown incredible resilience over the past 18 months and, after a well-deserved summer break, there may be a wide range of emotions as they head back into the classroom.
Some children may be excited and relieved, but others may feel anxious and apprehensive. Understanding and normalising their emotions, building their confidence, teaching them to develop routines and plan while embracing the last few weeks of family time will set them up for a successful adjustment.
It’s likely that the ‘new’ way of doing things with bubbles, staggered lunchtimes and lots of handwashing will remain in place as schools take stock or gradually adjust to the lifting of many Covid restrictions. Finding the time together to talk about the things they love about school as well any worries, while teaching them to focus on what they can control, is a great place to start.
Five practical steps to support your child with the return to school
1. Let your children talk
Mixed in with the excitement about seeing their friends there is likely to be apprehension about summer ending and how school will look and feel this time around. For some children, perhaps the more introverted, they may have loved the extended time at home, while others may have found the quieter, less-structured space more of a challenge. Some children may have started a new school last September and found that with all the Covid limitations it was hard to adjust and settle in. They may be feeling a little overwhelmed. We can expect to see some of the worries and big feelings emerge in our childrens’ behaviour, whether it’s withdrawing, being reluctant to discuss school or being unusually moody or rude.
Make time to listen. One of the hardest tasks of parenting is to resist the urge to solve our children’s problems and smooth the path ahead. It’s very tempting to reassure our children that ‘it’ll all be fine’ or ‘you don’t need to worry’, but with these words, although well-meaning, we don’t give them the opportunity to acknowledge their worries, learn that all emotions are OK and develop their own coping skills and strategies.
If instead we make it our job to listen hard, validate and empathise, we’re building their self-awareness and resilience. The first step towards learning to manage and handle tough and uncomfortable emotions is to acknowledge them and let them out. When we teach our children that ALL emotions are OK, they can start to learn to recognise feelings and manage them before they turn to problem-solving.
Our goal is to be their safe place, without judgment, pity or trying to fix things:
‘I can understand that you’re worried that you don’t know exactly what to expect. That feels uncomfortable.
’‘I’m wondering whether you quite liked the staggered playtime. You prefer it when it’s not so noisy and you might be thinking, “Oh no, it’s back to busy times again.”’
Listening and validating their apprehensions builds their capacity to manage and bounce back from stress and setbacks – which are not only key skills to handle yet another unusual ‘back to school’, but also important life skills necessary to thrive in uncertain times.
2. Make a plan
It’s a great idea to use the last days of summer to sit down with your children during a quiet calm moment, to listen, talk and plan. Depending on whether your child is at boarding or day school, and keeping their age and temperament in mind, discuss and set out plans and agree on some good routines. Not only are learning to plan and establish routines great skills but they also help children feel safe and secure while helping them manage anxiety and stress, as their brains have the chance to process what is about to happen and get prepared.
We know that young people everywhere have experienced higher levels of stress and anxiety. Uncertainty is one cause of anxiety, and teaching children to focus their energy on things over which they have some control is important.
Routines provide an anchor, a sense of security and control. It’s best to come up with routines and plans together. In fact, let your children take the lead, as feelings of independence and competence build confidence and are empowering:
‘I see that once again school suggests that you bring less stuff this term. What do you think you’ll need? Great idea to make a list. I can be the scribe.’
How should we manage the dreaded transition back to school bedtimes?’
Be calm, positive and acknowledge all their contributions. Asking and listening reinforces their belief in themselves, their ability to cope and teaches them wonderful, stress-busting organisational skills.
3. Be a role model.
We say that parenting is 80 per cent modelling. We’re our children’s most important teachers, and they pick up, copy and take on board all we do, including how we respond to stress and uncertainty. We may be relieved but a little uneasy about the transition back to school – after all, we’ve had our children unusually close for an awfully long time.
Focusing on optimism (even if you are inherently a pessimist!), having a flexible and responsive approach to change and sometimes just acknowledging the big feelings all help children to reframe thoughts from what they have lost and what might have changed to what they have – and that’s an invaluable life skill.
Acknowledging their concern while teaching them how to reframe a negative into a positive might sound like this:
‘I know it’s sad and disappointing that Elsa still isn’t in your bubble this year. You love laughing with her during break. I’m wondering what you can organise so that you can see each other on the weekend?’
We can also help our children learn to just sit with their feelings rather than try and push them aside:
‘I can see you’re dreading those early mornings – you are such a night owl! I get it and it’s tough.’
We can model a constructive, calm, optimistic, realistic and confident approach to back to school with the words we choose, the actions we take and the expressions that appear on our faces.
4. Focus on all the things they get right.
Children are more resilient, develop a strong feeling of self-worth and are prepared to meet challenges when they hear they are getting things right, that we approve and when they know exactly what behaviour is expected. Children are wired to seek our attention and approval (although it may not always feel like it!). When we give positive attention for positive behaviour, we get more of what we’re after. We call this ‘descriptive praise’:
‘You were really honest and brave. I can see you’re still worried about Covid at school. I get that and let’s think about how you can feel safe.’
‘I love that you started that list. Being organised helps you feel prepared and less overwhelmed.’
‘You’ve put all your laundry in the basket. Let’s put that wash on together so it’s ready by tomorrow.’
‘I told Granny how sensible and thoughtful you’re being.’
Children thrive on acknowledgement and belief; they rise to meet the challenge and it builds self-esteem – all key attributes to managing transitions and thriving in uncertain times.
5. Focus on the family.
After these extraordinary times and a long summer together, we should expect that the transition back to school might feel strange and unsettling.
When the world is topsy-turvy, we need more than ever the time to connect and reconnect. The reliability of supportive relationships helps our children to feel safe and secure, and research shows that it builds resilience too. As our children return to school, make every effort to keep the family rituals, the one-on-one time with each child and the family fun going. For younger children and any still at home, keep the consistency of even 10 minutes together in the morning or after school to reconnect. For older children or those away at school, use creativity with a family WhatsApp group, funny TouchNote cards of the dog, FaceTime calls with grandparents, plans for when you are together again – anything that reinforces the security, safety and support of those who love them.
Finally, the new term is a transition and change for us as well. Over the past 18 months, we have had our children by our sides for an unusual amount of time. We are going to miss them. Be patient, compassionate and kind to yourselves too.
We have been reminded over and over that the only constant is change. Transitioning back to yet another different type of school experience is one more. We know that when our children have the chance to process and prepare for change, they are much more likely to feel calm and successful. When they feel competent and listened to, they feel strong and capable. Helping our children manage uncertainty and setting them up for success is just one more way we can build resilience, so that they learn to cope and thrive with change and the unexpected twists and turns that life brings.
We wish you all the best for your return to school. If we can help with support and advice, please get in touch:
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