Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

SocietySeptember 9, 2021

Back to school in level two: How parents can help kids handle today’s big change

Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

Today children across the country outside of Auckland are returning to school after more than three weeks under lockdown. The Science Media Centre asked experts how parents can best support their kids in these unusual times.

Jin Russell: Remember to keep the risk in perspective

Children are returning to school tomorrow for all regions at delta level two. I welcome the news that the delta outbreak is controlled outside of Auckland to enable students to return to school safely. Schools provide so much more than formal education.

Parents and children may feel both relieved and anxious at the same time to be returning to school. While we do need to be cautious about the delta variant and ensuring we are following public health advice closely, parents and students can feel reassured that when there is very low likelihood of community transmission, students are at very low risk of catching Covid-19 in schools.

The majority of children who are infected with Covid-19 experience a mild or asymptomatic infection, however the risk to children is not zero; rarely, severe disease can result. This is why is so important for children over the age of 12 to be vaccinated, and for school staff to be vaccinated as well.

Schools will be working hard to make their environments safe for students and staff. Evidence shows that by implementing combinations of interventions, such as universal masking, improving ventilation, increasing activities outdoors, cohorting, distancing, hygiene, and staying at home if any symptoms, schools can significantly reduce potential transmission of the virus and keep everyone protected. There has been a lot of focus on masking, however improving ventilation is a critical measure as well.

Dr Jin Russell is a developmental paediatrician at Starship Children’s Hospital and a PhD student at the School of Population Health, University of Auckland.

Photo: Getty Images

Dr Dougal Sutherland: Anxiety is normal

While alert level two may bring a sense of freedom for some, for others it may bring a sense of worry and anxiety. This worry may be especially so for parents and whānau as children return to school. Parents and teachers will be well aware of the difficulties of enforcing physical distancing between children, whether they be five or 15 years old, and this may raise the concern of Covid-19 spreading, especially given the apparent speed of the delta variant.

Anxiety may be compounded for some families if parents remain working from the relative safety of home while children are out and about. The ambiguity of rules for children over the age of 12 could also cause confusion and worry for both whānau and teachers alike. Children over 12 are now able to be vaccinated, yet they are not required to wear masks at school nor on school buses, which often resemble sardine cans. In such times of uncertainty, focusing and acting on factors within an individual’s control (eg wearing a mask, washing hands, and getting vaccinated) can alleviate some of this worry.

Dr Dougal Sutherland is a clinical psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Wellbeing

Jacqui Maguire: Communication is key

It’s important to first acknowledge how resilient our little people are. When children have a stable home base, and at a core level feel loved and safe, they are able to manage many challenges. As a parent, it can be helpful remembering this. This allows our mindset to be “how do we support our children to navigate the rapid changes” instead of coming from a position of concern that they won’t be able to cope.

Some helpful tips before returning to school:

1. Talk to your children about the big day:

  • Ask them how they are feeling about their return to school.
  • What are they looking forward to? What will they miss about lockdown?
  • Preempt the changes that they might notice. Explain about masks and why people are wearing them. Remind them of the Covid safety measures (washing their hands, coughing into elbows).
  • If your child is 12+, ask their opinion on if they want to wear a mask or not. Discuss the pros and cons with them.

Communicating (which includes listening) in an age appropriate manner with our children enables them to feel seen, heard and understood.

2. If your child is expressing concerns about returning to school, get a very clear picture of their worries. Be a curious scientist by leaving assumptions at the door, and naively enquiring about their thought process.
Once you can understand their worries, you have the ability to validate their concerns and derive a plan to manage those.

3. If you as a parent are concerned about the return to school, discuss your worries with another adult, which may include discussing these with the school if required. It’s important we avoid transferring our thoughts onto our children.

Again, remember that children are resilient. If they feel like the adult has the logistics and concerns under control, it provides them the optimal opportunity to be a child. Good luck, and I hope all our young people enjoy being back in the classroom with their friends.

Dr Jacqui Maguire is a registered clinical psychologist

Photo: Getty Images

Melanie Woodfield: Get ready for some curly questions

Often, small children navigate change well. They can surprise us with their ability to “pivot”. But there also are practical things that the adults around them can do to support children in this time of transition:

If you do find yourself upset, stressed or snappy in front of the kids, it’s not the end of the world, but it can be useful to remind them that it’s not their job to look after you. That adults look after adults, and kids don’t need to look after adults. Young children are developmentally egocentric – if an adult is upset, they tend to think it’s because of something they have done or said. So they need to be told simply that you being upset is not their fault. That you’re thinking about something which makes you sad or worried, but you’ll have a talk to your friend and feel better soon. Acknowledge your own worries, but communicate a sense of calm, and an ability to cope. Children feel contained and secure when things are predictable and familiar. Try to keep the family routine the same, those reassuring rhythms of daily life.

Some children will be full of worries: “but what if…?”. We’ve all been tempted to reply with “don’t be silly” or “it’ll be fine!” But it is often helpful to reflect back their concern, to validate their emotion and help them feel heard, before moving on and distracting. Perhaps say something like “It makes sense that you’re worried that your teacher will tell you off for not doing that poem. Knowing her, I think she’ll understand. Let me know after school how it goes.” You could think of, and mentally rehearse, a couple of key statements that are honest, but reassuring and developmentally appropriate. Use these short statements, then distract and move on.

Remember that concepts like germs and infections are abstract. Developmentally, young children do better with concrete or literal concepts, so a long explanation might sail over their heads. Keep it simple, perhaps ‘some people get very sick when they have Covid, but most people get just a little sick. But we’re going to (wash hands / wear masks / stand back) to help keep everyone stay healthy and well.”

Perhaps anticipate some curly questions after the first day. It could be about why their friend wasn’t wearing a mask, when they had to (or vice versa). These sorts of scenarios can involve concepts around morality – right/wrong, bad/good – and discomfort with dissonance: he’s my friend but he’s doing the “wrong” thing. It might be helpful to explain that different people have different ideas – “but in our family we…” – and that it’s possible to be friends with someone but have different ideas about things.

Overall, try to relax expectations and go easy on yourself. You may feel distracted or preoccupied, thinking about how the kids are doing. Understand and accept that you won’t be as productive, and that thousands of other parents will be in the same situation. These are unusual circumstances. It’s a time for self-compassion and kindness to yourself and others.

Dr Melanie Woodfield is a psychologist at the Werry Centre, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland.

Kirsty Ross: Remember teachers can be nervous too

There will be children and teens who will be feeling excited about seeing their friends again and getting back to some normality with sports, activities and even schoolwork. However, there will also be some young people really  nervous about returning to school, just as there will be parents and whānau who will have some worries about how their children will cope going back to school (and about their health and safety) and who will miss the time they have had as a whānau. The full range of emotions is totally normal  and important to acknowledge right now.

Lockdown for some young people meant a respite from anxiety, busyness and pressures, especially for our rangitahi at high school. Stress around friendships and social situations, schoolwork,  assessments and preparation for exams, decisions around courses and career plans may have been able to be partly shelved for a few weeks. And so may return with full force over the next few days and weeks. For other young people, lockdown has meant missing out of free school lunches, routines, warm classrooms, and not having access to learning resources so missing out on learning. As I saw in a meme recently, we have all been in the same storm, but we have not all been in the same boat.

Remember that when you haven’t done something for a while, it loses its familiarity and our feeling of competence and confidence in that situation may have temporarily reduced. Having not been at school or work for a while may mean feeling anxious walking back into the school grounds or workplace again; it can mean feeling nervous about whether you will remember the morning routine and the order of showers that needs to occur for everyone to get out of the house on time! But that doesn’t mean that you won’t remember the rhythm and routine with time, and that these places, people, and  activities won’t become familiar again. Just give yourself and your loved ones time to remember the familiar, and get used to new processes like mask wearing.

And lastly, please remember that your schools and educators put a huge amount of thought, planning and consideration into ensuring that schools and young people are safe and will be prioritising wellbeing. Many educators are parents themselves, and your young people are precious to them too. They will also be nervous about wanting to get it right; have faith in their decisions, but ask questions to alleviate your concerns if there are things that are not clear. We are all in this together.

Good communication between home and school means that parents can reiterate the messages from school, and provides reassurance for young people that the adults in their world are working together and can be relied on to ensure their health and wellbeing is taken care of. Then they can relax and trust in those processes and decisions, and get on with the big job of being a young person in these challenging times.

Dr Kirsty Ross is a senior clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Massey University

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