Caroline Yolland, Counsellor at The Beacon boys’ school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, advises how to pastorally prepare your children for a possible return to school 

From 1 June, many children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 may be finally returning to their school site after 10 weeks of lockdown and learning from home. 

However, this return is not as simple as a ‘normal’ return to school after relaxed weeks of holiday enjoyment. During the crisis, many children will have experienced significant changes and challenges, including the abrupt closure of their school sites and a switch to home schooling or online learning. A number of children will also have been exposed to further distress and anxiety during the pandemic period if their home lives have been touched by illness, the death of a close family member or other emotional, psychological or financial strains.

All children and young people will have registered and reacted to these changes in some way. The younger children expected to return to school do not yet have a fully developed sense of time, so for them, a break of a few weeks or months can feel like a significant period of separation.

While some children may be eager to return to their old routine, others may need help to adjust and it is a good idea for parents and carers to start planning how they can support their children’s return to school in order to make the process as stress-free as possible. Here are some tips that I hope can help you to help them:

Tell them about the return as soon as it has been confirmed by your child’s school.

In a quiet time, with no other distractions, explain calmly, and without any bias from your own opinions and feelings, that it is now felt that it is safe to start to return to school after the stay-at-home lockdown.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings about returning

Your child may feel sad, worried or cross about the sudden break from school or about going back and reconnecting with their classmates and teacher. Their behaviour may change because of these feelings. You can support your child by remaining calm and trying to name the feelings out loud so that they know that you have heard how they are feeling. Learning to be an active listener (see boxout) without imposing any judgements or trying to ‘fix’ a problem is a real skill and will be hugely beneficial for your children both now and into the future. 

Prepare your child for the new social distancing rules and changes to routines at school. 

Find out if there are to be changes to the school routine, the layout to the classroom or indeed the classroom they will be in. If you can, find out about which children will be in their designated group / class and which teacher they will have. Talk with your children about these changes and explain exactly what they are. Acknowledge that some changes might feel strange and different and may take some time to adjust to. If their teacher is different, explain why this has happened if possible. It’s important to keep talking about these changes after the return has begun to discover if any variations are causing unnecessary anxiety.

Talk about the possibility that some teachers or children may be wearing masks and gloves.

Explain that some staff members or children may choose to wear masks and gloves while in school. Talk about the reasons why some have chosen to do this openly and honestly and answer any questions they may have. You may like to also discuss why (if applicable) you have decided not to send them back to school in personal protective equipment, explaining all the increased health and safety steps the school will have outlined to you.

Create a ‘countdown to school’ calendar for each child.

A visual tool of a calendar or timetable can really support any worries or anxiety. This preparation provides a sense of predictability and security, counteracting feelings of uncertainty and disruption they may have experienced as a result of the crisis. 

Give your child a level of control over aspects of their new school day

You could ask your child to choose what they would like to pack in their lunchbox or what they want wear to school each day (many schools are asking children to come dressed in their own clothes so they can be changed and washed every day). This can give them a sense of control and ownership over their return to school.

Ask your school if your child could have some contact with their teacher (new or otherwise) before returning to school.

This could be a phone call, email, letter, online meeting or recorded video message. This way, that first meeting or reintroduction to their teacher will take place in their secure home environment.

Arrange to have a catch-up call with your child’s teacher about their experiences during lockdown.

This could be helpful in order to review any issues that may have arisen during the break from school. It is helpful for the teacher to know of any particularly difficult experiences the child may have had, including whether they or their parent(s) or carer(s) have lost anyone close to them. This enables the teacher to understand their specific needs and behaviours after they return.

How to be an active listener

  • Turn devices off and show that you are listening. Squat down to the same level as your child and maintain eye contact with young children. Remember, though, that older children and adolescents often don’t like eye contact.
  • Smile and use a gentle tone of voice. 
  • Try to avoid impatient body language like eye rolling, foot tapping or sighing. This can discourage children from talking.
  • Put your own thoughts and feelings on one side.
  • Allow your child space to talk and tell their story without interrupting or contradicting them.
  • Allow silence if your child is using it to reflect and think, but step in if the silence feels uncomfortable.
  • Encouraging things to say: “Tell me more.” “And then?” “Go on, what else?”

Mrs Yolland’s Magic Toolkit 

Try any of these exercises with your children to help them to decrease feelings of anxiety and encourage them to live in the moment. If one doesn’t work, just try another and then make it a valued part of their day.

Mindful breathing: Focus on your breath, imagine a sailing boat that rises and falls with each breath. Alternatively, imagine your breath as a colour (breathe in blue and breathe out yellow).

Body scan: Lie on the floor in a comfortable position. Close your eyes, squeeze every muscle as tight as you can and then relax all your muscles. Think about how your body feels. Squish your toes and feet, squeeze your hands into fists and make your legs and arms as hard as stone. After a few seconds, release and relax your toes, feet, hands, legs and arms.

Heartbeat exercise: Jump up and down or do star jumps for one minute. Sit down and put your hand over your heart, then close your eyes and pay attention to your heartbeat and your breath.

Petal breathing: Squeeze one hand or both hands into fists and breathe in. Open your hands on the out breath. Repeat three or four times.

One-minute breathing: Using a timer, how many breaths can you count in one minute? One breath counts as in and out.

Hot chocolate breath: Put hands around an imaginary cup of hot chocolate. Breathe normally and naturally on an in breath, pretend to smell the hot chocolate and savour the smell. On an out breath, blow on the hot chocolate to cool it down. Repeat two to three times. 

Breathing buddies: Lie down and place a soft toy, cuddly, small pillow or cushion on your belly. Notice how it rises and falls with your breath. Pay attention to the rise and fall for a few breaths.

7/11 breathing: Breathe in for a count of seven and breathe out for a count of 11.

54321: This technique will take your child through their five senses to help remind them of the present. It is a wonderful calming technique. Take a deep breath and then notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and then take one more deep breath.Balloon breathing: Put your hands on your belly. Notice how your belly balloons out on your in breath and how your belly balloons in on your out breath. 

The Beacon is an independent prep school for boys aged 4-13 in Amersham. Pastoral care is of the utmost importance at the school and both before and through the lockdown, the school’s counsellor, Caroline Yolland, provides incredible support for both the boys and their families.

To view The Beacon’s recent Virtual Open Morning, register for their next Virtual Open Morning on Saturday 27 June – focusing on Pre-Prep (Reception to Year 2), or for more information about admissions into any year group through the lockdown, please visit https://www.beaconschool.co.uk/admissions/virtual-open-morning/.