Analysis: here's a psychological perspective on how to talk to children about going back to school after the holidays

By Darragh McCashin and Sinéad Smyth, DCU

It's time for the school bags to come out again. A sense of dread may emerge as we contemplate going back into early mornings, darker evenings, homework; and routines. In the calendar year, autumn brings maturity, harvest and preparation for winter.

But it’s a time of new beginnings In the academic year. Many households in Ireland are encountering similar feelings right now: ambivalence, disbelief and perhaps fear and anxiety about new teachers, new friends and even old friends. Concern about what might be different, but also what might possibly be the same.

Understandably, Covid-19 restrictions have adversely affected children’s well-being. However, despite the cyclical nature of back-to-school anxiety encountered each year, many children now recognise the importance of school routine and the social connectivity, intellectual stimulation, and playfulness that comes with that. Nonetheless, given the new environment or new experiences that face children – debates within school about public health; hygiene and vaccine conversations; and concern about future unknowns – it is possible that this could intensify some children’s school anxiety.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Evelyn O'Rourke has been to see the nurture rooms as part of back to school series

What is anxiety and what causes it?

Anxiety in children involves the inaccurate processing of potential threats posed by events or objects, which then go on to mimic normal responses to actual fears. It is crucial to note that fear (as distinct from anxiety) is itself a natural and functional response to something that poses a threat to wellbeing or safety; with a range of protective cognitive (overthinking), behavioural (avoidance), social (reduced interaction), and physical (increased heart-rate) responses. By contrast, anxiety is not acting functionally to protect us from danger, but instead can get in the way of everyday life.

So how do you know if a child is anxious? Aspects of a child’s behaviour may change if they are anxious. Areas affected may include sleep, appetite or even the ability to manage their emotions. Look for changes in how a child is behaving and see if these coincide with something new or unexpected in their life.

There are many factors that can influence anxiety and in children. It is often linked to feeling a lack of control. As children, many events are out of our control and it is not surprising that in such situations anxiety levels can rise.

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From RTÉ One News, a new survey has found that anxiety in children is a long-term impact of the pandemic

Psychologically, it is also important to note that there is a known clinical relationship between parental anxiety and child anxiety. For example, a child may notice parental anxiety and avoidant behaviours relating to certain scenarios, such as avoiding social groups, contact sports, or crowds. Consequently, this parental anxiety, and indeed the subsequent controlling behaviours that sometimes emerge, may then assist in developing and maintaining anxiety in some children.

Of course, Covid means we have all shared anxiety but across different levels: individual behaviours, group dynamics, and wider public health issues. It is imperative that we constructively attempt to name our anxieties and their causes, and collaborate on plans to overcome them gradually.

How to manage back to school anxiety

Preparation is key

Set your child up for success by beginning to talk about school early and about what the new year will bring. Talk about positive experiences in the previous year and pointing out exciting opportunities that will come soon (such as Hallowe'en parades, or opportunities to play with old friends). Without labouring the point, begin an informal countdown to school - start talking about how the day is structured and who’ll be dropping off and picking up.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Dr Niamh Lynch from Bon Secours Hospital in Cork on pandemic-related anxiety levels in babies and children

Give a sense of control

A lot of what a child will experience in school can’t be controlled, but you should give control where possible. For example, involve your child in choosing their lunch for the first day back. There may be a healthy food policy, but having a favourite non-food treat to look forward to is positive. If your child has to wear a uniform, can they pair it with their favourite socks or hair bobbins and pick out and get these ready in advance?

Positive associations

Just like having their favourite lunch to look forward to, are there other ways to pair positive events with back to school? A surprise of Mam or Dad taking an afternoon off work to do the school pick up or a treat of hot chocolate after school are small, positive things that we can do to conclude the first day back. We know that if we follow a behaviour like going into the school gate calmly with something positive like a hug from a parent, that will mean that the behaviour is more likely to occur again. A reward chart for encouraging homework completion is another example of this.

Practice

The key feature of effective psychology interventions such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is the use of gradual exposure. Parents should not inadvertently facilitate a child’s avoidance of the triggering issue (for example, school or sports), but instead think of simple ways the child can slowly inch closer to their triggers. This might mean a practice of the school run in the week before school returns, or getting a checklist together and ticking off things like new lunch boxes, school books and uniforms. It might also mean role-playing parts of the school day.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, dietitian Louise Reynolds on school lunches

Communicate

Parents should emphasise the normality and commonplace nature of school anxiety, and seek to form a collaboration with the child (and possibly teachers or the child’s friends, where appropriate) as opposed to unknowingly forcing their solutions. Some practical strategies include building in relaxation exercises, rewards systems, and listening to where the nuances of the child’s anxiety lie throughout these strategies will all be useful. Helping the child to spot where they may be experiencing an inaccurate processing of threat ("the first day back is going to be the worst thing ever, I won’t be able for it!"), and slowly restructuring this over time will help.

Professional help

Don’t be afraid to call on professionals where needed. This might simply be letting your child’s teacher know about any difficulties they are experiencing around the return to school. It might also mean identifying when anxiety is becoming very challenging and speaking to a psychologist such as a CBT therapist. Where access to professionals is not necessary nor possible, there are a range of freely available CBT-based resources that blend technology (apps, games) with mindfulness-based CBT content – check out the Mindful gNATs app. Evidence suggests that children enjoy such technologies and that they can play a positive role in addressing both anxiety and low mood.

Best of luck to everyone who is returning to school!

Dr Darragh McCashin is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology in DCU. His research specialises in digital mental health interventions across clinical and forensic populations. Dr Sinéad Smyth is an Associate Professor in psychology at the School of Psychology in DCU. Her research focuses on behavioural interventions for education and health. She is an Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ