The start of a school year brings some understandable feelings of nervousness but coming back to school after a pandemic can exacerbate those feelings for some children. At the other end of the spectrum, our College staff are collectively holding their breath, excited by the imminent return of our entire College community.
Across these past two weeks, with the return of Prep, Year 1, and Years 11 and 12, it has been apparent that many of our students have had a strong emotional reaction to the uncertainty of their changed circumstances; a different school schedule, reduced outside activities, reduced socialization and, for our Year 12s, their altered Formal plans. Their excitement to return to the College is peppered with some trepidation and feelings of anxiety, particularly for our younger students.
Times of change and uncertainty have a tendency to unsettle even the most confident of students. With very little notice and not much chance to plan, they have been catapulted into a new normal world. But with crises, comes opportunities. Alongside the stress and sadness, people become innovative, flexible and creative when circumstances change. This is the very heart of resilience. Now is the time for us all to capitalise on the lessons and the opportunities, but to also be mindful of those with concerns about returning.
Part of the brain responsible for anxiety is called the amygdala. It often learns from experience and can go into overdrive if our children are concerned about something, like coming back to school. Worry is sometimes helpful, generally if it motivates a student to come up with a plan, or to get their homework done or start the assignment. If, however, worry just sits with a child, and they cannot find a way forward, it can then become a problem. These children can walk around in a state of ‘amber alert’, presuming ‘danger’ is imminent, consequently being less able to participate in their day. Worse still, worries can morph into faux facts, where they see bad things as being likely to happen, which itself leads to an inability to start to find a way forward.
For a few students, coming back to the College next week might be really difficult and the closer Monday looms, the more interesting their behaviour may become. For parents, it is important to remember that this behaviour has nothing at all to do with being bad, and everything to do with a brain that has associated school with a lack of safety and will put up a ferocious fight (or flight) to avoid it. You may see some avoidance behaviour (not getting ready, refusal), big feelings, tantrums, aggression, tears, yelling, tummy aches, headaches, and feeling sick before you leave to come to school. Until there are enough opportunities (the first week or two back at school) for anxious children to reach the calm that is on the other side of their anxiety, their anxiety will drive them to avoid.
So, first, some advice; please listen to their concerns, but also reassure them that they will manage their first day back. Listening to their apprehensions makes them feel heard. Do your best to summarise what they are saying and label the emotion… ‘Sounds like you are a bit nervous about going back.’ Make sure you also indicate that a lot of other children will probably feel the same way and keep reminding them of the good things at school they’ve missed. Finally, reach out to your child’s classroom teacher or tutor teacher or their Head of House in the Senior School so we can support you in the transition back to the College.
Other students who have been back this past fortnight are now looking at their assessment and worried about the volume of work they now have to make up. Will I be behind? What if I missed something while I was learning at home? What is going to happen with my assessment? How can I get a report when I haven’t learning enough?! Rest assured that our teachers have been working to track learning across years to ensure students are given the opportunity to pick-up and revisit competencies across the rest of this year and, while there will be assessment, please reassure your sons/daughters that it will reflect a point in time in their learning, we need to remember the bigger picture and see what can be accomplished across the remainder of this year.
What would be concerning is if students overcompensate and spend all their time studying upon their return. Students need a schedule that includes regular socializing (via Zoom/Teams if necessary), exercise, study breaks, time with family, leisure activities, dancing, singing, baking, helping around the house, readying and of course enough sleep. A balance of all these things will help you manage, make you feel better and more in control of your routine.
Every now and then, our students get fixated on things they cannot control, and while this is normal, to continue to be frustrated about things beyond control is a waste of energy. Ideally, I would recommend that you encourage students to try to think of their time during homeschooling in a positive light. Learning how to cope with adversity, pivoting and changing their learning/note-taking/ways of interacting may make them more resourceful and capable of facing difficulty in their future – what it has shown them is that they can cope, they can come through the other side, and they can succeed.
The plan for 2020 has changed, but as I am so often reminded, plans often do. It isn’t about what has happened to you, but how you respond that matters – we need to be fluid, or we will get stuck. One step at a time is the path to moving forward.
Principal/Head of College