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Back to School, Back to Reality... By Sam Pretorius

We’re used to seeing the phrase “back to school” in January of every year as stationary and uniform providers try convince us to by our supplies from them in preparation for the start of the school year. Never did I think as South African’s we would be talking about going “back to school” at this time of the year. Neither did I think the question “if and when are you sending you child back to school?” would be a topic on which I would have so many conversations, both professionally and as a mom myself. Yet here we find ourselves.

For some of you, the decision of when your child will return to school has been made for you, by government and/or schools (I somehow think it is easier than making the call yourself, but maybe that’s just me). For others, there is more flexibility with regards to if, when and how often your child will attend face to face school and you need to make the decision that feels most comfortable for your family.

If a child is to return to in-person schooling, regardless of when the child returns, after a significant break from “normal school”, it would be naïve to think that it won’t be a substantial change from the months at home and that there won’t be an adjustment period. Just how long this adjustment period lasts and how smooth or rocky it is depends on a number of factors, including, but not limited to: the child’s age, developmental level, personality, temperament and learning needs and style. Regardless of these individual differences, there are some conversations and practices we can employ to try and mitigate the potentially bumpy road ahead.

Inform Yourself

Find out as much as you can from the school about the new COVID-19 policies and procedures that will be in place at school. This way, you can discuss them with your child (see next section), answer questions they have in regard to the daily screening and other health and safety measures to which they will need to adhere.

Talk, Talk, Talk

Talk about going back to school. A lot. Discuss what school will be like, what will be the same and what will be different. Remind your child about the aspects of school they enjoy and discuss strategies to help them cope with the parts of the school experience they find difficult. Remind them of their daily routine, walking them through their timetable and chat about why we they are going back to school.

Identify, Name and Explore Feelings

During these conversations, identify, name and explore feelings associated with going back to school. While it will be different from child to child, experiencing mixed feelings is very likely. For younger children, having more than one feeling at a time (eg: excited and nervous) can be very confusing. Help them by validating their emotions and explaining how it is possible and normal to feel more than one feeling at the same time. It can also be useful to share your own experience. For example: “I’m so happy for you that you get to hang out with your friends again at school. At the same time, I’m a little sad that we won’t get to see each other as much during the day”. Avoid minimising and invalidating their experience. An example of this would be something like this: after your child has said they are scared of returning to school, you say “don’t be silly, there is nothing to be scared of! You love school!” Rather, acknowledge their feelings and normalise their experience.

Drive-Bys and Visits

Drive or walk past your child’s school in the build-up to returning. You can use this as a prompt to have some of the necessary conversations mentioned above. For younger children, a short visit to school with a parent by their side can be useful in the preparation process. This will allow them to see the new layout of the classroom, the dividers put between tables, masking tape that delineates where on the carpet they can sit/ play, and any other adjusted aspects of their school environment.

Model Resilience and Positivity

Remember that children hear everything. Be mindful of the “adult” conversation had about Corona, your opinions on the school’s COVID-19 protocols, your own fears, etc. We want to be role models for our children by demonstrating resilience and a positive, yet not idealistic, outlook on the current situation. Children feed off their parents’ emotional states so managing our own levels of anxiety is key to helping with the transition. Practicing deep breathing techniques is a wonderful way to model and teach health coping.

Set Your Child Up for Success

Be sure your child has sufficient masks, a visor (if required/ wanted), hand sanitizer, and anything else they need to feel they are prepared and safe when entering the school building. Ensure they are getting back to normal routine in terms of bedtime to ensure they are getting sufficient sleep. Start the morning off with a healthy, hearty breakfast to get them through until break as they won’t be able to snack whenever they want like they did while at home.

Each family’s story regarding COVID-19 and lockdown is unique and the chapter that refers to the transition back to school is no different. As the mom of a toddler who is going back to school on 1 September after being home since mid-March, it is helpful for me to keep in mind that most children are able to cope with change reasonably well when supported by caring adults.

About the author

Sam Pretorius is a Cape Town based Counselling Psychologist. She obtained her BPsych (Counselling) and MA (Counselling Psych), both cum laude, from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth after which she and her husband relocated to Cape Town.

During her career, Sam has been involved in a variety of activities with a focus on counselling, supervising and lecturing. She has also worked in the school environment with children across the age range, as well as their parents. While still involved in tertiary education, these days the majority of Sam’s work focuses on her private practice where she consults with individuals presenting with a wide array of life challenges. She also provides pro-bono support to a local NGO focussing on childhood mental health.

On a more personal note, she is married and has a young daughter. She enjoys nothing more than being with loved ones, particularly outside, enjoying the beautiful city of Cape Town. She has two dogs that she loves but drive her crazy. In her spare time, you are likely to find her reading a good psychological thriller, with a strong cup of coffee in hand, or going for a long walk.

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