Supporting your child with transitioning back to primary school


Where we are ‘at’

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement this week that the government’s five tests are currently being met, many schools across the country have been given the go ahead to begin a phased school reopening (beyond the current key worker provision) to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils from 1st June. Individual settings have been frantically assessing whether or not they are able to open safely, following government guidelines as best as they can, with the space and staff they have in situ. Different schools have different phasing-in plans, some have refused to open for the moment, and it’s a stressful time for education leaders, staff, parents and pupils alike as we head for another significant transition into the unknown. As a parent and an education trainer (among other things), I have been watching things unfold with much interest.

In the training I deliver to education professionals relating to attachment and trauma, I talk at length about the significance of supporting vulnerable children through transitions to help them to feel safe and I consider any strategies applicable to all children – lockdown will have been experienced in so many different ways, and many children may well have regressed considerably in the past few weeks (ours certainly have), leaving them vulnerable to finding a transition back to school (and let’s face it, it’s not going to be the same school set-up as before by a long stretch) a struggle.

Key differences in settings will likely be:

  • Being taught in ‘bubbles’ (smaller groups and unable to socialise with all friends)

  • Social distancing rules

  • Extra hand washing and stricter hygiene rules

  • Staggered start/end times, staggered break/lunchtimes

  • Different pick-up and drop-off points

  • Different classroom areas

  • Areas and items out of bounds

  • Potentially one-way systems around school

  • Different teachers (possibly)

While putting aside the obvious concerns around increased risks to physical safety (this is not to minimise this, but not the focus of this blog), and also respecting that not everyone will be sending their children back as and when they have the option to (totally a family unit decision of course), for those who have weighed everything up and that feel it is the right decision for their child to return to school, here are some suggestions for things that can help to support children at this time.

8 things to try when supporting your child's transition back to school

1. Start a dialogue with a key teacher and agree the best mode for communication going forward.

Share concerns and the importance of two-way communication to ensure you are on the same page and that your child can see this. Respect that this is an incredibly anxious time for teachers too, and they’ll be trying to find their calm in this situation too. Ask questions about anything you are unsure about.

2. Explain that there will be new rules and routines to get used to (and be clear about what remains the same)

Be realistic about the fact that school will not be completely the same as it was before and as far as you can, share what some of the differences might look like. Ask school for clarity around how the day will look, and what the classroom set-up is likely to be if they haven’t provided detailed information or photos already. Explain that the teachers have been working really hard to make everything as safe and friendly as they possibly can and are looking forward to welcoming them back to school again.

Talk about the things that won’t have changed, as this can be incredibly reassuring. Your child will:

  • Be with children they know within their bubble.

  • See staff they know around the school.

  • Have breaktimes and lunchtimes as they did before, albeit staggered.

  • Learn lots of fun things just like before.

  • Be dropped off and picked up by you or another member of the household as before (be clear about who will pick up, when and where)

3. Ease back into a routine with bedtimes and mornings

Many families will have settled in to a new ‘normal’ at home, which may have involved later bed times and looser routines generally. It is well worth trying to gradually move back towards the same routines your child used to have when at school – it brings with it a sense of familiarity and a sense of things shifting back to some form of prior normal – and will of course mean they’re likely more able to get up in the morning less tired and able to get ready for school on time when they do go back. 4. Find your inner (or outward!) calm

Parents and teachers alike (many teachers are of course parents too) may be feeling anxious about the return to school. It’s a time to try to put this to one side as best you can, to give your child a sense of calm and reassurance. Being aware of how we might be coming across is half the battle, so it’s a time for increased mindfulness - acknowledging our feelings, being aware of how we are presenting and doing our best to manage our states.

5. Open up a dialogue around your children’s worries (at the right time for your children)

This is a tricky one, as there’s often a fine line between ‘too early’ (some children cannot cope with a long lead in to something, and it can cause great anxiety) and ‘too late’ (they need me time to process information and ask questions) to start talking about a return to school, but you will know your child and you can only do your best to attune to when is the ‘right’ time to begin a dialogue.

Normalise worries as much as possible – everyone will be feeling a bit nervous about going back. Acknowledge any feelings as that will make a huge difference to your child feeling validated. Wonder out loud with your child and name the feelings.

My daughter (9) sometimes writes her worries down in a special book when she is unable to talk about them, and knows she can do this at any time. She also made a worry jar of her own about a month ago and adds things to this - it's something that's been used at school before. She also asks a lot of repetitive questions, which is a key sign that she’s anxious about something and trying to process it.

6. Assume it's 'back to basics' with separation anxiety and use transition items

It’s going to be a big day after so many weeks at home with you – this constitutes another big change and it’s highly possible children will experience some of those early wobbles around separation again. It might pay to expect regression, and if the transition back goes more smoothly than anticipated then that’s a bonus for everyone.

It is important to reflect that your child may be worried that they can’t keep you safe, just as much as they may be worried that you are not there to keep them safe.

Think about transition items/activities that might work in current circumstances (school are not likely to want children to bring many items from home in with them, so time to get creative around this) to support your child with feeling safe and to support the idea of holding one another in mind.

  • Photo keyrings (with family pictures) for bags or lunchboxes (something that can be attached to items they are allowed to take in).

  • Use visual timetables to remind your child how the day will go from waking up to going to bed.

  • Pop a note in their lunchbox to say that you hope they are having a good day and can’t wait to see them later (or something age appropriate or whatever works for you).

  • Spray your perfume or aftershave on their collar.

  • Sew a button with your initials or similar (use nail polish?) inside their sleeve (also acts as something to fiddle with if anxious).

  • Hug button drawing on hand or arm with a felt-tipped pen (but be mindful may get washed off quickly with extra hand washing procedures!).

  • Share stories with school that your child has resonated with, or enjoyed with you during lockdown. It can be very reassuring to hear the same, familiar messages and stories at school as at home which can create a feeling of safety. There are lots of great kid-friendly coronavirus worries e-books being shared at the moment.

  • For younger children, look at sharing the story The Invisible String.

7. Manage your expectations

You may see lots of wobbly behaviours for a while as your child transitions back and adjusts to the new school situation. Assume this may be the case, accept it for what it is and know you will ride out this next wave of change.

8. Look after yourself

We are all facing our own challenges during this time and it’s important to keep you own mental health and well-being in mind even when it feels natural to prioritise everyone else’s. It comes back to the old ‘oxygen mask’ analogy in that you need to be well placed yourself in order to support those around you to the best of your ability.

In the meantime, if you are an education setting in the South Gloucestershire/Bristol/Bath area looking for attachment and trauma support, please get in touch. I regularly deliver attachment and trauma training to education professionals working with vulnerable children via the Centre for Adoption Support & Education, and I'm currently involved in supporting webinars for adoptive families with the Therapeutic Services team there vis-a-vis education matters.

I also support mental health practitioners and education professionals with their planning and admin needs. If you are in need of some virtual support with running your business and would like to talk through how I might help, please get in touch: info@spillaneconsulting.co.uk

While the current school reopening will present many challenges and concerns for schools, parents/carers and pupils, with all challenges there come opportunities. My next blog will be a brief piece on those…

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