HEADING back to school after the summer break will be even more of a wrench than usual when pupils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland begin to return next week.
It will be the first time they have been in class for more than six months – and for many the adjustment will be a dramatic change from being taught at home before the holidays.
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Stuart Lawrence – brother of 1993 race attack victim Stephen – was a teacher for 17 years before dedicating his life to motivating young people.
Here, the 44-year-old explains why we need to think about children’s mental wellbeing just as much as their academic work and reveals how parents can help ease their kids back into normal school life.
'School after trauma'
By Stuart Lawrence
I know all about returning to school after trauma.
Obviously what happened to me — losing my brother when I was 16 years old in such a terrible way — is extreme.
But to some extent our schoolchildren have been through a kind of collective trauma in having months of their lives and education disrupted so dramatically.
We cannot underestimate the effects of that.
When I went back to school after Stephen died, I probably seemed OK on the surface.
But I now know I lost seven years of my life to trauma.
There were telltale signs. I had good friends at school. But after I sat my exams and left I just changed my number and never spoke to those friends again.
I did the same thing at college.
'MIGHT BE TERRIFIED'
It was only after university that I stayed in touch with the guys I lived with, that I realised how weird my behaviour had been.
I speak to a lot of schoolchildren in the course of my work and have a nine-year-old son myself, and I am worried about the mental state of many young people as they return to school.
All of their lives, children have known separation between school and home.
For most, the home was a safe space outside of school, a different place where you did different things. Now the two have merged and that is difficult to unpick.
School won’t look or feel the same. Children will be kept in bubbles, albeit larger ones, and their movements will be more restricted.
In secondaries they are likely to have far fewer different subject teachers and will not be able to mix widely.
Teachers won’t move so freely around classrooms and younger children won’t be able to play so physically or boisterously together because of social distancing.
And of course in some secondaries, children will be asked to wear masks.
We are wanting life to start to feel back to normal and masks don’t help with that. But it is also about keeping everyone safe.
Some children might be terrified of the virus after months of being told to distance and hearing about infection rates and deaths, so masks may make them feel more at ease.
I have been campaigning for each school to have a designated member of staff focused on children’s psychological wellbeing, a bit like how American schools have counsellors.
The need has never been greater than now.
TWO YEARS TO CATCH UP
If children are in tip-top shape mentally, they are going to perform far better academically.
Those children already considered vulnerable will be affected even more by the pandemic.
In the large London girls’ secondary I used to teach at, there were 150 pupils listed as vulnerable.
It would be great if there was someone whose sole job was how we support those kids.
It has been estimated it could take teachers two years to catch up those kids who have been off for six months.
But as the holidays draw to a close, here are some simple ways you can help to ease the transition.
Are children at risk?
DURING the first wave of the pandemic, only one in every 100 cases of Covid-19 in England was a child.
Children accounted for just 1,408 of the 129,704 positive Covid test results carried out between January and May, or one per cent.
The highest number of tests and positive results were among infants, particularly those under three months, and among one-year-olds.
In all, fewer than one in 200 children known to have had the virus has died.
On average, children were nearly six years old when they tested positive for the virus and 53 per cent were boys.
The partial reopening of schools last term resulted in just one in 23,000 children catching the virus and none being admitted to hospital.
A report suggested that just 0.01 per cent of schools had a case or outbreak in June.
Over the same period, 25,470 cases were recorded in England, meaning schools contributed to just 0.7 per cent of cases, and pupils just 0.27 per cent.
Explain things will be different
Don’t pretend everything will look and feel the same when your children return.
Pick-up and drop-off times are likely to be different.
Children are likely to be asked to wash their hands as soon as they get to school and this will be a regular part of their routine.
Plus there will be mask-wearing in some schools.
Children might not be able to play with friends in other classes.
The best ways to explain why routines will be different is to explain that teachers want more than anything to keep children safe – and not to ruin their fun.
Some may feel very anxious about the virus, so emphasise that headteachers have gone to great lengths to make schools a safe place.
And if you are buying a back-to-school kit, include some mini bottles of hand sanitiser and label them with their name.
Get back into a routine
AS the end of the holidays approaches, it is also a good idea to try to ease children back into a routine.
Be mindful of time.
If they have been going to bed later than usual, try to bring that forward by a bit each evening from now, and start waking them up earlier in the mornings.
It’s not always easy, I know! But if you don’t, it will be a big struggle for you all to get ready when the first day of school comes.
If kids are reluctant and negative about returning, get them to think about the stuff they like at school, such as seeing friends again and playing sports.
This is a chance for them to get back to normality and enjoy what they have missed for the past few months.
Check in with them
IT will be a relief for many parents that home-schooling is finally over.
But once you deliver your child to the school gates, that isn’t the end of it.
Gently check back in with how they are doing and feeling over the next few weeks and months.
There have been fears among teachers that truancy rates could soar as children struggle to settle back into school.
Most kids loathe the question “what did you do today?” So ask other things to get them talking.
“Who did you sit with at lunch?” “Who gave the best answer in class?” or “What was the most interesting thing that you discovered today?”
The reopening of our schools and classrooms is a great way to move forward from the pandemic.
But we need to be just as vigilant about our kids’ mental wellbeing as their physical health.
Use screen time wisely
While it is good to cut down on screen time, it is also wise to find the thing that is “sticky” for your child and base a task around it.
In a lot of cases, that will be their phones.
Look back through photos and get them to find their favourites.
Get them to write about that moment or re-tell it and describe it and film them. This is great for presentation skills.
Also, rather than fighting about video games, join in. I have discovered games like Minecraft and Roblox during lockdown.
It can be tempting for parents when their kids are playing games to think: “I will use the chance to do something else.” But join in.
So while my son is building a bridge on Minecraft I talk about materials, like: “Should you build this out of concrete or wood?”
Rebuild focus and memory
When the summer holidays came, many parents were desperate for a break from home schooling.
But it is worth picking up a bit of English, maths and reading again now.
It doesn’t need to be much – just ten minutes a day.
Take a measured approach and be natural. Your child could write a story based on something they have done.
If they have been on screens much more than normal, try to wean them off gently.
This doesn’t have to mean sitting them down in front of a textbook.
Make pizzas together for tea then talk about the number of ingredients and where they come from – that covers maths, science and geography.
Get them ready to write again
YOU need to start honing your children’s concentration and strengthening fine motor skills in time for the return to school, where they will be holding pens and writing all day.
I have been doing this with my son by, for example, playing Lego for half an hour.
It is great for kids to engage in an immersive activity like that and it will often give them a great sense of achievement.
Putting a paintbrush in a child’s hands helps them with hand-eye coordination and motor skills.
You could even get them to write in chalk on paving stones – the rain will soon wash it off.
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