The new school year will soon be with us: make sure youngsters feel calm about what lies ahead. Former teacher Catherine Lynch of education resources and lesson-planning experts PlanBee has ten tips
As families struggle to deal with the fall-out from exams chaos, don’t forget that younger children also need support with their mental health – this year of all years. Although they’re still on holiday, they may have worries about the new school year in September.
While this is usually an exciting – if slightly scary – time for young children, this year will be like no other. Schools have made enormous efforts to give children – especially those who are moving on to ‘big’ school – a sense of celebration and achievement, there is no doubt that the lengthy absence from school has made everything different.
Children are out of the habit of formal learning, they probably haven’t had one-to-one contact with teachers, they may have lost contact with many of the friends. And if that wasn’t enough, the know the new school year will mean social-distancing, ‘bubbles’. and a host of changes to their learning environment.
This summer is the time to work on developing good mental health practices at home in order to help you children feel calm and prepared for what lies ahead. Here are 10 easy ways to do it.
1. Relationships are important: create a nurturing environment where everyone feels valued and safe.
While the need may be innate, the skill of developing and maintaining connections is learned. You can create this environment at home by working as a team, sharing responsibilities and making sure everyone’s efforts are appreciated. Think about ways your family is looking out for each other and remember showing appreciation and keeping the lines of dialogue open consistently will help your children learn these skills.
2. Adjust your expectations
We are in a very strange time. Our worlds have been turned upside down and almost everything we knew to be true has changed. Adults and children alike have been affected by changes to their lives and as a result things we used to be able to cope with might feel like huge mountains to climb. We all have something called a window of tolerance. If your window is smaller than usual at the moment, go easy on yourself and take the pressure off. Allow yourself and your children to be less productive than normal, and give yourselves time to process what you are feeling.
3. Allow everyone to have a voice
It is absolutely normal to want to feel in control and to hold on tightly to the things we can control. Whether your child breaks down over the wrong-colour socks or something else, see what practical choices you can give them to help them feel they have some control. Depending on their age, give them a few carefully selected choices to choose from or have an open discussion about the options available. If transitions are hard for your child, focus on what is happening when the current activity ends, give them time warnings, or a timer if they are old enough.
4. Be playful and have fun
Play fosters creativity, collaboration and problem solving, all of which are important for good mental health. Playing is a fantastic way to develop relationships and resilience. It also releases feel-good hormones. Children (and adults) learn through play. Children often explore areas they are finding challenging through their play. Role plays are a great example of this.
5. Create an atmosphere where all feelings are allowed
Name feelings and emotions as they arise. This gives children and adults the language to describe how they are feeling. Set aside a calm time to talk about feelings. You could show your children Emoticon Emotions Cards or Photo Emotions Cards and ask them to pick one to explore. Talk about the physical sensations the emotion has for each of you. Talk about times you felt it or characters in books, films or tv shows experienced it. Discuss what happened before, during and after the emotion was felt. Is there a better way the character could have reacted? What led up to the crisis point?
Help children to give their feelings an appropriate outlet. Put boundaries in place around behaviours to keep everyone safe and develop strategies to help reinforce those boundaries. For example, you are allowed to feel happy, angry or sad, you are not allowed to break things or hit.
6. Read stories
Spend time together and lose yourselves in a good book. Act out stories and make up your own narratives. Use your imagination or add props. Let books take you where you cannot physically go.
7. Keep some structure in the day
This does not mean you need to timetable every second. For example, agree times that you will come together as a family. Agree a time that is for quiet activities, work, going outdoors. If your family is anything like mine, you may find the daily structure seems to centre around food!
8. Encourage curiosity
Take your children outside and follow their lead, see what they have questions about and research the answers together. Go on ‘I spy challenge walks’, find out how exercise changes their heart rate, have timed races, explore shadows, find mini-beasts, classify animals, identify plants and identify birds. The list is endless. These do not have to be structured planned activities, go outside and develop observational skills and see where the time takes you.
9. Give your child a safe space they can go to
See if you can create a den or something similar for your child to play in, and retreat to when they want to be alone.
10. Make time for family time
Designate time each week where there are no screens and no distractions. Use this time to work on something together. This might be building a den, cooking, painting, crafting, going on a walk. It doesn’t matter what the activity is; the important thing is to spend some quality stress-free time connected, doing something together. Success has different guises: have a day where you forget about the end goal and the focus is on being together.