A Liverpool Hope University academic has shared her thoughts on how parents can protect their child’s wellbeing as school life resumes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr Zoi Nikiforidou is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Hope.
She’s concerned there’s a chance the buzz of returning to school this month could quickly ebb away to reveal heightened new anxieties.
The issue could be all the more pressing amid a new ban on gatherings announced by the Government this week – and yet which don’t apply to schools.
And for Dr Nikiforidou, schools and parents need to be mindful of any possible warning signs a child is struggling with their mental wellbeing – with changes in appetite or sleep patterns, or an up-tick in aggression, red flag warning signs.
Dr Nikiforidou, who specialises in research about the way children analyse and adapt to risk, explains: “Children are extremely resilient and more adaptable than we might give them credit for. And there’s every chance the return to school will be seamless.
“But it’s important for schools and families to have the expectation there could be a sort of emotional collapse in the coming weeks once the excitement of returning to school wears off.
“We need to be aware this might happen and we need to be proactive in supporting children to face any hard times that they might experience.
“There are some simple steps we can follow - and it’s about keeping an eye on subtle changes in the child’s behaviours to see if there’s a problem.
“Are there changes in sleep patterns, or changes in appetite, or is the child displaying aggression?
“With monitoring in place, schools and families can then work together to address the potential issues.”
Here Dr Nikiforidou outlines some of the key ways you might be able to support your child’s wellbeing as they negotiate this tricky school term:
Parents – keep your emotions in check.
One of the key issues for Dr Nikiforidou is the potential for there to be an imbalance between the way a parent feels, and how the child feels - and she’s urging parents to try and keep their emotions on an even keel even if they threaten to unravel.
She reveals: “There’s every chance that parents are much more apprehensive than children are about the dangers of virus transmission with the return to school.
“And of course, we should accept our emotions, thoughts and feelings, even if they’re overwhelming.
“However, because children sense and feel what we as parents feel, it’s important to try to be calm and to show you’re placing your trust in the schools, nurseries and all the professionals involved in this transition.”
Ask the right questions when your child comes home from school.
Dr Nikiforidou explains: “A good strategy is to really pay attention to the questions you ask your children and the answers you receive.
“Simply asking them, ‘How was school today?’ or ‘How are you feeling today?’ might not be enough in all cases.
“Try to ask questions that explore how they’re feeling on a much deeper level, such as about individual things they’ve learned, to perhaps make them see how beneficial it is for them to be at school.
“Or ask about individual friends, to again remind them of the nice emotions stirred-up by being back in their friendship groups.”
Include them in future family event planning.
“At this point in time it’s also really important that you include them in discussions about planning for future family days out or activities.
“It’s about letting them know that just because they’re back at school, it doesn’t mean the great family times you might have had together as a family have to come to an end.
“By including them in the conversation, it might shift the focus away from the day to day life of being back in the classroom to renewed excitement about what’s in store for them.
“Crucially, parents should be mindful they then carry out those plans.
“Because all of this feeds into helping children to focus and concentrate at an academic level, too.
“If they’re emotionally and socially fine, then they’ll be ready to engage in their learning. If they’re emotionally unstable, then it will be very difficult to provide any support in helping them concentrate or engage with learning activities.”
Don’t create two worlds – the ‘school’ and ‘home’.
Dr Nikiforidou explains: “We’re all vulnerable in this situation.
“And we need to avoid the creation of two worlds - the home and then the school environment - which might then be in conflict with each other.
“For example, if the school has a really open dialogue about the latest Coronavirus news, but you’re shielding your children from it to perhaps protect them, this could create an imbalance.
“And that’s why communication between educational settings - the schools and nurseries - and families need to be really open and clear.”
Don’t fret too much about shifting friendship groups.
Dr Nikiforidou says many parents may have noticed how friendship groups have subtly shifted over the past few months, and they may be anxious about certain friends drifting away.
This, says Dr Nikiforidou, is simply part of life - and shouldn’t be confused with an effect of the Coronavirus lock-down.
She adds “Even before the crisis, friendships changed. They are organic. They’re not stable or static. What’s happened, given the circumstances, is that these changes have simply been accelerated through a lack of social contact.
“It’s simply more obvious to them who is the child’s friend and who isn’t. Even the ‘leaders’ of friendship groups might now be different. A child might also have had time to reflect on what someone else in the group did or said previously, and then decided, weeks or months longer, to no longer what to associate with that person.
“It is, however unfortunate, a natural part of the friendship cycle.”
Be mindful of how you discuss the need for counselling.
Dr Nikiforidou says it’s absolutely correct for schools to be able to offer counselling services, or to signpost children to help, where it’s needed.
But she has a warning about how that message is transmitted.
She adds: “Schools will have counselling provision in place for students who might have had a really difficult time. And that’s extremely important.
“But in my view we shouldn’t forget that children are really resilient and can overcome some really hard circumstances.
“Making them more aware of counselling, and making them feel like they could have an issue or problem, might not actually be helpful.
“It’s about how we communicate the message to children in a sensitive way to ensure they’re not stigmatised.”
Beware separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety doesn’t just manifest as a refusal to leave the house - it can also result in sleep disturbance as well as physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches and even vomiting.
Dr Nikiforidou, stated: “The Coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in modern times.
“We don’t know how the pandemic might contribute to the mental wellbeing of children further down the line, or how they’ll interpret the situation.
“But one thing I feel we do need to be mindful about is potential issues with separation anxiety.
“Your child could have grown accustomed to having you around, to being with you 24/7 - and they’ve probably really enjoyed that time together, too.
“Young children in particular are living through a new reality. They will have settled into a new routine which has provided them with a safety net to escape the uncertainty.
“When that routine changes, they could be left feeling quite vulnerable.
“We need to be mindful about a degree of separation anxiety that might not have been present before - or for separation anxiety problems to return in children where parents thought they’d overcome it.”
According to the NHS, separation anxiety typically affects children aged between six months and three years - but it can also impact on older children and even adolescents.