The Wellbeing Team and Teaching Staff from The Beacon boys’ school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, share their advice on how to prepare your children pastorally, practically and academically for a return to school in September
The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it an enormous period of change and uncertainty. Children and young people experienced the sudden and unexpected closure of schools with little opportunity to say goodbye to friends and teachers.
They had to adapt to a new way of life and learning very quickly. While some primary school pupils were able to spend a small amount of time in school in ‘bubbles’ before the end of term, the majority of school-age children and young people will have experienced almost six months away from their school site and from usual school routines and social interactions.
Even a ‘normal’ break from school before a new academic year can feel like a long time for young children. They will all need some element of reintroducing of routines and careful monitoring of any anxieties surrounding a return to school, the challenges of new school procedures, of a new teacher and, in some cases, even a whole new school.
Hopefully, these tips will help your children’s transition back to school to be as smooth and stress-free as possible.
Schools can provide a familiar routine, a sense of community and something that is secure and constant in children and young people’s lives. When this is disrupted it can be very unsettling. During the crisis, a number of children will also have been exposed to further distress and anxiety if their home lives were touched by illness, separation from loved ones or the death of a close family member.
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
Start positive conversations about going back to school
As soon as you can, start positive conversations about going back to school. A positive outlook is everything in setting the tone for a positive beginning.
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 their feelings out loud so that they know you have heard and understood how they are feeling.
Prepare your child for any new social distancing rules and changes to routines
Find out if there are to be changes to the school day or to the layout of classrooms or playgrounds. Ask your school if they can provide you with pictures or short videos of the new one-way systems or other routines that are being introduced. By talking through these changes with your child you will help to reduce any confusion or anxiety they may have about returning to school.
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 in school. Talk about the reasons why some have chosen to do this openly and honestly and answer any questions your child may have. You may also like to 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 your school will have hopefully outlined to you.
Create a ‘countdown to school’ calendar for each child
A visual calendar or timetable to mark the return to school can really support any worries or anxiety. This preparation provides a sense of predictability and security, counteracting feelings of uncertainty and disruption your child may have experienced as a result of the crisis. A countdown can also be useful for you as it’s not just children who are out of the usual day-to-day routine.
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 (making sure they have some of their favourite foods for the first few days) 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.
Email your child’s new teacher
If you haven’t already spoken to your child’s new teacher about their experiences during lockdown before the summer holidays, put it in an email. Although most teachers will be on holiday themselves, they will be coming in before the start of term to prepare their classrooms and for school INSET days. It is really useful for them to know of any particularly difficult experiences your child may have had, especially if they have lost someone close to them, as this enables the teacher to better understand their pupils’ needs and behaviour.
Being able to take positive, practical steps to help prepare your child for school will also be a huge help to you after the lack of control and certainty we have all faced and felt. Here are some useful organisational suggestions:
Re-establish school-day routines
A few weeks before the start of term, try to bring your child’s bedtime forward so that it’s in line with school-day routines. With so long away from school, it’s important you do this gradually, so it’s not too much of a shock and so that sleep patterns can slowly be changed. Children will find it difficult to cope with school without enough sleep. The Millpond Sleep Clinic’s (NHS approved sleep advisors) recommendations for how much sleep time children need is a useful guidance to work from:
Reception and Year 1 – minimum 11 hours
Year 2 and Year 3 – minimum 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Years 4 and 5 – minimum 10 hours
Years 6 and 7 – minimum 9 hours 45 minutes
Year 8 – minimum 9 hours 15 minutes
Year 9-13 – minimum 9 hours
There is often a resistance to going to bed, especially after the many months away from the School site, as well as the more relaxed rules of the summer holidays. However, establishing a routine where there are no screens an hour before bedtime will help to prepare your child for sleep. Encouraging them to read in that hour or enjoy having stories read to them will relax them, as well as increase their reading opportunities.
It is also extremely important to ensure your child eats enough good quality food for breakfast to keep them focused and alert until lunchtime. Looking at what they eat and educating them on having a healthy and nutritious breakfast will go a long way to helping them cope effectively with the school day.
As you head towards the start of the school year, ensuring that your child has regular daily exercise of at least an hour will also help them cope with the transition. Encouraging play dates where they are riding bikes or playing in the garden will help rebuild their fitness levels and help them to reconnect with their school friends.
It’s important to keep routines at home simple and consistent both before and after the return to school. Your children will be learning so many new routines at school that they will need some safety and consistency at home.
Socialise with friends
Some children may be feeling anxious about reconnecting with large groups of children after so much time away from school, so why not arrange socially-distanced play dates following government guidelines. You can change between one-on-one and smaller groups, and vary both the size of and the children within those groups.
Try on their school uniform
As well as checking to see whether you need to order any larger-sized uniform, it’s a good idea to gently reintroduce your child into school-day routines. In the safety and security of your home, you could have the occasional fun, wear-your-uniform-day in the weeks leading up to the start of term. This will also give your child the opportunity to practise tasks like tying shoe-laces and ties ready for their first day back.
Encourage independence throughout the summer holidays
This is particularly important for younger children, to minimise separation anxiety around going back to or starting school for the first time. If government guidelines allow, maybe your child could go for a sleepover with a close family member or on a playdate in a friend’s back garden without you present. Any regular time away from you and the close security of home will reintroduce independence ready for the regular separation of a school day.
Familiarise your child with their school
If your child is returning to the same school, try taking some regular family walks past the school and ask them to point out where their new classroom will be. Start positive conversations about fun school activities such as playing in the playground. If your child is starting a new school, maybe do a few trial run-throughs of their journey to school, whether that’s by foot, bike, car or public transport (making sure you wear your masks to start to familiarise them with their use).
Pick up some new books that will actively engage your child
There are so many stories about the first day of school, and reading with your child is a great way to lead the back-to-school discussion. Even if your child is in Year 1 or 2, these are still great books to share as for many, a six-month break can feel like a lifetime, so it may feel like they’re starting all over again.
Have fun buying school supplies
Make an adventure of shopping for required items, such as pens and pencils and crayons, a cool new pencil case, a new bookbag, or lunchbox and let them role play with the items if they like. Do make sure you buy items that will be easy to wipe clean as this is likely to continue to be an important hygiene requirement for school equipment going forward.
Don’t overdo the clubs when they’re back
Your child is going to be extremely tired, getting used to the more formal structure, the new rules, the socialising and the classroom learning again. It is also likely that your after-school extra-curricular club offerings will be limited due to the restrictions in place, so don’t look for too many additional, out-of-school clubs for your child. Build up any additional elements to their day slowly and carefully.
Every child in every school is going to be at a different level academically after this prolonged time away from school sites, and the important thing is not to worry too much about how much they might have missed over the lockdown period. Your child’s school will already have a detailed plan on how they aim to assess where there are gaps and what they will do, either on a one-to-one or small group basis, to bridge them. You have done all you can over this extended time away from school to keep their minds active and the summer holidays are all about having a break and just keeping the children ‘ticking along’. So what can you do that takes the brakes off enough to have a rest but doesn’t set them back?
Any and all reading is worthwhile. Some children are natural, voracious readers, while others are more reluctant. During the pandemic, many parents have noted that their children have been retreating back to familiar territory – re-reading books they have read before (especially Roald Dahl and Harry Potter) and finding solace in them. This can only be a good thing and do encourage it. For children who are interested in current affairs, subscribing to weekly news titles such as The Week Junior (currently offering the first six weeks free) and First News (first three issues for £1) are really useful. Several educational publishers, such as Oxford Owl, publish ‘virtual books’ that can be read online (and some have made these free to access during the pandemic). You can also register your child for free to The Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge. This year it is a fully-digital challenge called Let’s Get Silly – all about celebrating books that make us laugh. Children can set their own reading goal, collect virtual rewards and unlock activities by reading anything – from library to school books, e-books or e-audio. Alternatively, if your child is still at the phonics stage, some schemes, such as Ruth Miskin Training, have published useful and free daily videos on YouTube.
Practise times tables
Times tables knowledge is fundamental to all maths calculations, especially mental maths, so practising times tables regularly throughout the summer holidays is a great way to keep the maths learning ticking along. Some still believe in rote learning and there is nothing wrong with this – chanting them until they stick! Equally, there are many useful apps and websites to help, such as Squeebles Times Tables and Hit the Button, which are great ways for children to practise while also having fun.
Try touch typing
For children in schools who have provided online learning during the lockdown, the importance of children having good IT skills has been fundamental. Touch typing remains an essential life skill that can be learnt from a very young age. It’s like learning to ride a bike – once you can do it, you’ll never forget it. Several free websites, including BBC Dance Mat Typing, are worth trying.
Even in the digital age, it’s important that children still learn to write well by hand. Throughout the holidays, you could ask your child to write a short journal documenting all the fun things they did the day before. Alternatively, ask them to write short letters to their family and friends who they haven’t seen for a while. They could even copy poems or short stories that they enjoy – all handwriting practise is worthwhile.
Try a few online courses or workshops
Even though you may want to encourage time away from screens, if your child has a few spare hours, there are a huge amount of online camps, courses and workshops they can get involved in – and they won’t even realise they’re learning. The Natural History Museum and The Science Museum will be offering exciting – and free – talks and activities online this summer. Alternatively, computer training school, Code Kids, are offering a huge range of coding summer mini camps, such as Roblox or Minecraft coding, throughout the holidays. If wildlife and nature is more your child’s thing, then the World Wildlife Fund are offering a Wildlife Explorers Workshop for a suggested donation of just £2 a child. One of the most popular online lessons at The Beacon School were the boys’ Cooking & Nutrition sessions, where their teacher, Kim Rowland, inspired the boys with an incredible range of ‘Cooking with Kim’ videos. The Beacon have made all these cooking videos available to any child who would like to access them and try their hand in the kitchen at: https://vimeo.com/showcase/6814883/.
The important thing to remember when it comes to keeping their hand in academically is not to push anything. Make it fun, keep it short and try to focus their learning around subjects they like, be it football teams, Pokemon characters, films they’ve enjoyed or the natural world.
To view The Beacon’s recent Virtual Open Morning, register for their Open Morning on Saturday 10 October, 09:00 -16:00, or for more information about admissions into any year group, please visit https://www.beaconschool.co.uk