By Becky Saunders, Head of Policy, Home-Start UK and child mental health expert.

The pandemic and all of the changes this has brought to our lives have had a big impact on children, even the very youngest, and for those of school age they are likely to have a range of deeply held feelings as the return to school is on the horizon. There has been a big emphasis on lost learning and catching-up with education but we must focus on the emotional needs of children first in order that they can get back to learning. Parents are the best people to help their children to navigate this transition back into the classroom.

Talking about feelings

Let your child know that it’s ok to not feel ok, but you can manage these difficult feelings together – young children will likely have a whole mix of feelings about a return to school. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, and allow them to express these feelings, both positive and negative.

Help them explore what is on their mind. Using play or creativity can be useful to allow young children to communicate their feelings in a safe and supported way. Think with them about the different possibilities they imagine with empathy, curiosity and playfulness. If they have a particular worry help them to think about the different ways they might respond to this.

Check in with your child regularly so that they know you are open to hearing about their feelings as they return to school and encounter different situations.

Your child will take their cue from you in how you manage emotions so make sure that you are taking care of your own needs first, so that you can be calm and better able to listen to their worries and support their emotional regulation.

Create a plan

Be open about what is happening, and share as much information in advance as you can about the plans from their school – what will be the same and what will be different in terms of classrooms, friendships and social distancing measures for example?

Prepare for reopening – a virtual run through or dress rehearsal journey to school can be helpful. Talk with your child about what they like best at school, and ask questions such as, “What’s your favourite activity? Who are you looking forward to seeing the most? Where do your normally play? What do you remember about last time you were there?”

Re-establishing routines will be important in helping your child adjust to their return. You can go through these with your child in advance, and get them involved in getting prepared – thinking about packed lunches, getting uniform ready or creating a timetable you can put up on your fridge.

Be honest about any uncertainty. Your child might have questions about what if schools close again? It is important to acknowledge these concerns and reassure your child that whatever changes are ahead you are there to support them. The hello’s and goodbye’s they have experienced over the pandemic, and who they have seen are important. Thinking with your child about reconnecting with friends, teachers and places can help them to make sense of these disruptions.

Make an art wall, a drawing, a list, or a collage – be creative and explore what your children enjoyed about lockdown and what they didn’t enjoy and what they are looking forward to, or not looking forward to about their return to school, and have this on display at home.

Managing Separation

Every transition will stir up feelings and overwhelm in young children can quickly kick in. Keep this in mind and make use of strengthening messages of safety, emotional regulation and relationship to restore feelings of calm and bring positive experiences that children can draw on when they are feeling wobbly.

Think about how you can make a relational bridge between you and your child to help them manage the transition back into school in a positive way.  This might be taking their favourite toy to school if allowed, of having something small and special in their pocket – like a cut out heart you make out of a scrap of fabric or paper. If you wear a regular perfume or aftershave you could give their clothes a small spray so that they know you both carry this same scent even when you are apart. Or you could decorate their lunchbox or water bottle together so that they have a visual reminder of something nice you have done together to bring you to mind during the day.

You could also make a fun secret handshake or goodbye saying with them to mark your hello and goodbye at the start and end of the school day.

Transitions take time and there may be setbacks, and this is ok. Acknowledge these with your child alongside supporting them to think ahead to things they are looking forward to and when this situation will be behind us. 

Find more advice in our Support for Families during Lockdown pages.