by Kasey Edwards, interview with Georgina Manning for ABC Online.
"What if my friend gives me a big hug?"
With school resuming in most states after weeks of lockdown, many kids will be busting to see their friends and get out of the house.
But for some, the thought of returning to the classroom is enough to induce a bout of anxiety. Over weeks of online wellbeing sessions, teacher and friendship skills expert Dana Kerford has heard a steady stream of concerns.
"Of the 4,000 plus kids I've worked with in my online classroom, many of them have expressed anxiety and nervousness around going back to school," says Ms Kerford, who founded a company teaching friendship strategies.
As well as concerns about social distancing and how they will be able to safely interact with their friends, some kids are also concerned about how to reconnect with their friends.
"Many friendship groups have changed or dissolved during coronavirus, so there's this underlying uneasiness," Ms Kerford says.
"Where do I fit?" and "Is that group I was in still my group?" are among the concerns she has heard recently.
Children's anxiety expert Karen Young says even if your child is eager to go back to class, they may need help with the transition.
"It might still be jarring because they've become settled into a new routine," says Ms Young.
"This is not like going back to school after the holidays. They've been disconnected from their friends for such a long time."
Signs your child might be worried Ms Young says parents should be aware their kids may not share their back-to-school worries.
"You might get the 'What ifs' — such as, 'What if I go to school and I get sick? What if I go to school and something else happens?'" says Ms Young.
Other signs could be trouble sleeping, restlessness, bursts of anger over seemingly benign things, withdrawing, or complaints about headaches or feeling sick in the tummy.
Helping kids transition back to school.
We can help our children by encouraging them to express how they feel about going back to school, and validating their concerns. Ms Young suggests a conversation opener such as: "It's a big thing going back to school and it's OK if you feel a bit worried. That's really understandable and normal."
After validation comes strength: where we tell our kids it might be a bit hard at first but it's going to be OK, and we know they're going to get through this. "This is very different to saying there's nothing to worry about," says Ms Young. "They don't buy that anyway, and it also just increases their anxiety because they feel the person they have turned to for support doesn't get it."
Thinking it might be easier to keep kids home?
If stress levels are running high in your home, you may be tempted to let your child stay a little longer, especially if they have siblings in other grades or schools who are not starting back yet.
Georgina Manning, a counsellor and student wellbeing expert, was asked by one mother if she should allow her child in prep to stay home, because it might be too hard for her little one to go back to school earlier than her grade three sister. Ms Manning says you might be asking for trouble with this approach.
"The anxiety will be worse if she goes back two weeks later than her friends, when the class has all settled back in. It's best to rip the band-aid off quickly and just go," she says.
Teachers can help kids settle back in.
It isn't just kids and parents who are anxious. Ms Young has received many emails from teachers just as concerned about how to best support their students transition back to face-to-face learning. "With social distancing in place, teachers will need to convey that welcome and warmth to put their children at ease in other ways," says Ms Young. "It can happen by your face lighting up when you see them." That may mean spending more time on the social and emotional side of learning. "Academics are second to relational safety. Because if you want them to learn, they have to feel safe," says Ms Young.
Keeping our own anxiety in check will also help our kids
As for us parents, we can help our children by managing our own emotions. "If a parent feels anxious about dropping off, the child may pick up on that and may see the situation as anxiety-provoking," says Ms Manning.
"But if a parent is really relaxed, the child will model that." And remember, our children are often more capable than we think.
"We underestimate how resilient kids are and how easily they can adapt," says Ms Manning.
"Once kids are back with their friends and back with the teacher, they'll settle back in."