Coping with staggered school starting dates can be a challenge for many families as they return to school after lockdowns. Children who are already subject to school anxiety are likely to find this especially daunting as they try to adjust to the school routine after an extended period at home.
A recent analysis of data from multiple global studies found that anxiety and depression in children and young people had doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, so it’s not surprising that many children are facing the return to school with anxiety.
So, what can parents and carers do to help their children adjust to staggered return dates?
Set a visual reminder
Most children respond well to visual reminders as they adjust to changes in routine.
One of the best ways to help kids who are anxious about their return to school is to buy or make a family calendar. Write each child’s return date on the calendar and cross each day off as a reminder of how many days it is until school goes back. It helps when they can see what everyone else is doing as well.
Create individual calendars
Make or buy individual calendars for each child so they can see their own schedule. You can get creative and decorate your calendars; making a fun activity out of it will help kids to associate the passing of time with pleasant memories rather than anxiety and dread.
Find a fun way of marking off each day and help your child to look forward to the positive things about going back to school.
Use activities as stepping stones
An empty calendar isn’t nearly as much fun as a full one! Plan some activities that your child can write on their calendar to help them know what comes next. Although it might be difficult to do normal activities during restrictions, you can still plan a special meal or some other small treat as a way of helping your child know what to expect from day to day.
Get into the school routine before school starts
Routine helps anxious kids to cope because they know what to expect next. It’s easy to get into a relaxed routine during lockdowns, and a sudden shift to a normal school routine is likely to be stressful or overwhelming for an anxious child.
The best way to do it is to start gradually once you know the return-to-school dates.
It’s a good idea to start bringing bedtimes into line with normal school bedtimes, then you can add in other elements of the normal routine.
To help kids go to sleep at the normal time, limit or eliminate screen time two hours before bedtime. You can also incorporate regular activities such as a warm bath, a bedtime story, or other routines to help kids wind down ready for sleep.
Exercise can benefit everyone’s mental health, not just an anxious child’s. Find something you can all do together; walking, swimming, and cycling are all good activities for families to enjoy. If it’s something you all enjoy, you’re more likely to stick at it and reap the long-term benefits.
Everyone will feel better with the boost in anti-anxiety neurochemicals such as serotonin and various endocannabinoids, and it will be easier to focus on the positives instead of worrying about the future.
Coping with staggered school starting dates may be a bumpy ride for some families, but with a bit of preparation, some strategies in place to help kids manage school anxiety, and realistic expectations, everyone will get through this. Parents and carers, you’ve done an awesome job during the lockdowns, so be kind to yourselves, too. You’re amazing!
A paediatric occupational therapist with 20+ years’ experience, my passion is to empower OTs and educators to demystify kids’ behaviour by providing easy-to-implement, hands-on strategies to transform struggling families and kids’ lives so they can thrive.