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Returning to school after lockdown – 5 tips from a Priory psychiatrist on how to address anxiety

Delays in re-opening schools after lockdown left the Children’s Commissioner for England warning that most children will have missed nearly six months of formal education, “the biggest disruption since the Second World War”.

And, in addition to concerns about the educational effects of closures right across the school system, Priory experts – some of whom specialise in counselling children and adolescents - agree that the long period of isolation and lockdown may have had a significant impact on young people’s mental health. While some children are beginning to feel excited about the start of the new term, getting back into routine and seeing their friends, there are many who are starting to feel anxious at the prospect of going back. 

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, said; “It’s certainly concerning to us, as the impact of lockdown evolves, that more and more young people are becoming quite low in mood and feeling anxious over a summer that didn’t work out as they had thought.

“Whether aged 6 or 16, they are clearly worrying about returning to classmates they haven’t seen for months, and perhaps being left behind in schoolwork and friendship ‘status’. Others are finding their anxiety is increasing about being outside of the security of their home, whilst other family members – such as younger siblings and grandparents - remain indoors.”

However, parents may find that in some cases, play can have great therapeutic value in enabling children to adapt to changes caused by the pandemic, as well as helping facilitate a fresh understanding of sharing and being considerate and caring to others -  all of which will be helpful skills for the return to school in September.

Dr van Zwanenberg explains; “Positively encouraging children to play and exercise together – especially in outdoor spaces - will bring significant developmental benefits, not least after this unusual period of lockdown and social isolation.

“For young children, time with their friends is really important; they constantly need to be developing their social skills and playing is such a helpful way to teach them how to  tackle difficult times. For example, when they play, they can become superheroes and allow themselves to feel invincible.

“Overall, play has many benefits for young people, including brain development, language development, and helping them cope with stress. It goes without saying that it also helps them with their physical development as they jump and run around.”

To allow parents to take a proactive role in preparing their children for the imminent return to school, Dr van Zwanenberg suggests five top tips for using play and other strategies  to help young people re-adjust to life in the classroom (and playground) post-lockdown:

1. Act it out: “Role-play” can be a great way of familiarising children with what to expect on their return to school so the transition is a little easier. For example, envisage what will be happening on the school morning and  help them establish a routine, so things aren’t so confusing when they have to experience this once again.

Try to role-play certain scenarios with children too, before going back to school, to re-teach them social skills they might not have practised for a while, for example; ‘Let’s pretend we are friends going to play at the playground and there is only one swing and we both want to go on it’. They can ‘role-play’ how the child should respond and share. This sort of role-playing can teach children so much. They have to solve a problem and think about what is right and wrong and fair and remember how to communicate all this.

2. Getting back into routine; think about reintroducing some of the following over the next weeks: passing their school on a daily walk; driving them past school whenever you can; asking the school if you can arrange a Zoom call with the teacher or teaching assistant if your child is particularly anxious about returning.

If you sense little bits of school exposure are already causing your child to become anxious, it’s likely that there’s going to be higher levels on their first day back. It’s therefore important to make it seem as normal and familiar as possible in the run-up to September

3. Now’s the time to talk: During conversations, do try to mention school frequently to your child. Discuss memories you have of their teachers and stories you have of them and their friends. This will hopefully ignite nice, positive memories and help your child to feel enthusiastic about going back.

Many people – whether adults or children – have feelings of anxiety related to the unknown, so, I would also ask your child if there is anything that they would really like to know about returning to school. Create space for talking, while doing other activities like baking and walking the dog together, so that your child has numerous opportunities to tell you about their worries.

They might say ‘I want to know what the classrooms will look like’ or ‘I’d really like to know what we will be doing on the first day back’. You can help to reduce their unknowns by finding out some of these things by emailing the school in advance.

4. Reintroduce a friendly face: As mentioned before, you may also want to consider contacting their teacher and asking if they would be able to do a video call with you and your child. Your child might love it and engage well, or they may feel a bit embarrassed. Either way, it’s beneficial as they will see you interacting positively with their teacher and talking excitedly about going back to school.

Additionally, encourage them to contact their friends over a video call prior to the start of term. When they’re little, think about setting up a game for them to play together. That way they’ll be playing with their friend even if they aren’t back in the same room yet.

5. Big school beckons! If you have an older child moving from year six to secondary school, this – more so than ever – is going to be a major life event for them. It’s totally natural that they’re going to be worrying about many things, including maintaining friendships from primary schools and what unknowns they may face. But this doesn’t need to be seen as a cause of anxiety – instead, try to encourage your child to think about this as an exciting time, and encourage them to look forward to what they can do with the friends who are moving on with them to their senior school, so that they can plan it together – as well as the brilliant opportunity of meeting new friends and being in a bigger school with lots more facilities (and loads of experience) which will help them fulfil their ambitions.

Almost everyone’s been in lockdown and having to face this ‘new normal’ over the past few months, so remind them they’re not alone with their worries and they’ll soon find that, with their new classmates, they’re all in this together.

Reassuringly, Dr van Zwanenberg concludes; “Try to remember that all of us – parents and children alike – have been through a period of extreme uncertainty. Some level of anxiety at a time like this is really normal - but it is also treatable. Whatever the circumstance, many young people can experience anxiety during their educational ‘career’, which may cause them to struggle getting into school or even wanting to stay in contact with their friends. However, it’s entirely possible - with the right hope and support - for them to overcome this.

“So please don’t hesitate to access support via your GP, the school or via a specialist mental health service if it is needed”


About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drugs and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into four divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and the Middle East. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

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