It’s OK To Say: How return to school can mean separation anxiety for some pupils

Going back to school - illustration by Helena Mackevych

Going back to school - illustration by Helena Mackevych - Credit: Archant

Months after closing in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the district’s schools have now opened for pupils from Reception class and Years 1 and 6. Stacey Turner, founder of mental health awareness charity It’s OK To Say, looks at how children, parents and staff have reacted to drastically different schools.

A rainbow created by keyworker children over at How Wood Primary School and Nursery over nine weeks.

A rainbow created by keyworker children over at How Wood Primary School and Nursery over nine weeks. - Credit: Archant

The return to school may have caused concern for many parents and teachers, but has also seen great positivity with a focus on the children’s wellbeing first and foremost.

Stacey, who is a specialist in all-ages separation anxiety, has been playing close attention to how schools have been supporting the emotional needs of their pupils while maintaining social distance.

She contacted Cynthia Rowe, head teacher at How Wood Primary School and Nursery, to find out what measures they had put in place to support the return of a section of their children.

Cynthia explained: “Supporting our children’s return to school so that their experience is a positive one has been of the utmost importance during this time of change.

“Greeting our children with a welcoming smile and encouraging words was the starting point for all staff and then a range of strategies have been used to ease the anxieties some children may have.

“For our youngest children, we have structured the day to closely reflect the familiar routine they were previously used to even though the environment has changed.”

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The school has also introduced innovative ways of supporting social distancing.

“Circumstance dictates that the children have their own safe space and to make their space personal to them, they have made and decorated name labels and have a tray of their own things. They have responded very positively to this arrangement and even the nursery-aged children seem to enjoy having their own ‘space’. To further reassure and comfort the children, teachers have held daily circle times so the class can discuss how they are feeling, and music is incorporated in mindfulness sessions to soothe, calm and support the children’s emotional wellbeing. Ultimately, talking openly, showing kindness with our words and reassuring familiarity are key to minimising anxiety.”

But it’s not just the schools having to deal with these changes, parents are also finding themselves confronting separation anxiety and trauma.

Mum Mel Jones of St Albans elaborated on her own situation with her five-year-old son: “He didn’t want to go to school ‘because it’s not fun’. I had chats with the mums on my nursery group and apologised that they had to witness the meltdown my child had and how I felt so embarrassed about it all.

“Bu the mums were amazing with so many lovely messages to make me feel better. After day three, his teacher and I decided it would be better for him to stay at home until September as technically he doesn’t have to go in. I could see how hard it was for the teachers to not be able to use their natural instinct to calm him and get him settled while I left.

“Basically, my point is not everything is what it seems, the teachers are amazing, and I really felt for them, as I walked out on the first day basically in tears. We’re all winging it and we’re all doing our best and I salute all teachers. They are having to go back but refrain from the natural instinct they have to care hug and reassure the little ones.”

Stacey offered her own advice on coping with this unusual situation: “It’s important to remember not to put pressure on ourselves, I know as a mum of two myself, it’s easier said than done, so have some self-compassion.

“The lockdown has been hugely disruptive to our everyday lives, and children are bound to stick closer than usual.

“When it comes returning to school, it depends on the child and the family’s circumstances, with some children able to go ahead feeling wobbly, yet responding to the school’s support, while for some the panic provokes the ‘fight or flight’ response with fear evident, but that’s OK and a normal response.

“Our worlds have been rocked with our stability pulled out from underneath us. It is going to take time to get used to the new normal every day, but we’re all finding our way.”

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