Written: September 2020 

We wrote this article just before schools in England opened in September, 2020.  The article explores a range of issues that might still be helpful to your family as the pandemic develops.

How to talk to your child about some of the hard stuff about going back to school including bullying, feeling anxious and whether or not you have to send your child to school.

Some of the reasons why your child feels worried or concerned about going back to school might not be so easy to talk about. It might even be that your child finds it more comfortable being out of school because there have been positives for them staying at home in lockdown. It can help to talk about these positives and work out what you can keep doing together as a family to keep the positives going. However, it is also important to recognise that going back to school means change for children, and this can give us all mixed feelings. Below are some of the challenges you and your child might be facing, along with some tips to help in beginning to overcome them.

Young person standing and looking out over the sea

Bullying 

In 2018, research in the UK showed that over half of all 12-15 year olds had experienced some form of bullying over the previous 12 months, and that this had taken place both in school and online. Bullying can happen frequently to children and those who get bullied can often struggle at school, have lower levels of attendance and generally be less happy in the classroom. But in addition to this, the reasons why some children bully others can be complicated and often indicate that the child who is being accused of bullying can be in need of help and support in school too. As schools reopen for all children, this might be a difficult time for many and you might start to see changes in behaviour and demeanour that suggests that school may not be a place where your child feels comfortable. If this sounds like your child, then some of the following suggestions could help:

  • If you are worried about bullying in school, discuss your concerns with teachers at the school to help the school understand your child’s feelings better. Teachers can put together a plan to help your child feel comfortable and safe in returning to school. This can also be the case if your child has experienced bullying online.
  • Try to stay calm, listen to your child and reassure them that bullying is never their fault, ask them what they would like to happen next and how adults can best help
  • Acknowledge their feelings. Bullying can make children feel a range of mixed emotions, including feeling frightened, angry, sad & lonely - just giving your child time to talk about their feelings helps them know that you are there for them
  • Let them know that they have a right to be safe and that you and school will work together to make things right. Do not encourage children to retaliate or fight back - this can make things worse or make people believe that they are the problem
  • If your child is experiencing negative feelings about returning to school then our calming techniques resource could help, however if the feelings intensify and begin to impact your child’s day to day life, including sleep and eating patterns, consider seeking further support 
  • If your child has been accused of bullying others, try not to be hard on yourself. Children and young people can easily get pulled into group dynamics that can result in bullying. It is important to talk to your child and give them space to explain what is going on from their perspective - there is some useful information for young people who may be bullying others here 
  • When talking, remember to name and label the behaviour and not the person. This can help children recognise that they can change their approach toward others, for example - saying  ‘when you keep excluding your sister from your game it really hurts her feelings and makes her feel bad’ helps children focus on behaviour that they can change, but saying ‘you are mean for not letting your sister play’ labels children and their identity.

For more resources on exploring feelings, emotions and more, visit our emotional wellbeing sub-hub.

Schoolboy working on a computer

COVID-19

Children may be especially worried about returning to school and catching the virus, remembering the new rules that school has put in place or worried about how they will catch up with their school work.  All these worries are to be expected, and even the most confident of children will need some reassurance from adults they know and trust.

We spoke to children aged 10-13 who told us about what has helped them feel better about preparing to go back to school, how they feel about it and what they think is important for adults to know about. These thoughts and ideas may help you and your child have a conversation about going back to school too:

  • ‘Speak to your friends before you go back, maybe over the phone or on text and find out how others are feeling, it can be good to know you are not on your own and make a plan to go back together’
  • ‘There will be new rules to remember but if you get confused then it is ok to ask for help or for them to be explained again’
  • ‘It has been really stressful not knowing what to expect but the school website had some useful information on it so I know a bit more about what to expect’
  • ‘We have promised to spend time together me and mum when I get home from the first day, just to talk about what it was like and to have something to look forward to’
  • ‘We are trying to focus on the things that we are looking forward to, I think it’ll be good to see my teacher again and I like science lessons’ 
  • ‘Like in lockdown we had to do the same thing all the time, like every day, because we couldn’t really do much, but going back to school means that there is going to be something different every day’
  • ‘Well I have kind of missed school and I kind of haven’t at the same time..!’

You too may have your own mixed feelings about children going back to school and you may be concerned that the return of schools means a member of your family is more likely to catch the virus. It might help to focus on the practical things we can do to reduce the likelihood of getting coronavirus. Remember to encourage everyone in your home to follow good hand washing practices, follow social distancing rules when outside (including if you are picking children up or dropping them off  at school) and to use face coverings where required. 

Child's hand resting in adult's hand

Talking with your child about feelings

It can be hard for your child to take that first step in talking with you about the feelings they have about going back to school. It might help to regularly offer them opportunities to talk. They may not always take these opportunities but knowing that the offer is there can really help. Reassure them that there are no right and wrong ways to feel.

Ways to start a conversation about your child’s feelings

You could try asking questions like:

When you think about going back to school, what words come to mind? You’ve used the word “worry”, what does that feel like?

Sometimes words can mean different things to us than they do to our children so it can help to explore and understand what they mean.

  • It can help to summarise what your child has said and repeat this back to them. This gives your child the opportunity to correct anything that you got wrong. It also means that they will feel listened to and understood. This can help to reduce the strength of their feelings and make them feel that they are not alone in coping with their emotions.
  • Remember that it’s okay not to always have the answers when your child comes to you to discuss their worries, and that it's okay to acknowledge this with them. Don’t be hard on yourself or panic if you’re unsure what to say. Sometimes just sitting and listening and being present and available to your child can be powerful. This can help your child to feel understood and that their emotions and feelings are important to you.
Teenage boy sitting and playing with an ipad

Do I have to send my child to school?

Staff at school will want to work with you and your family so that a return to school is done in the best way for your child, so that they feel best able to return, able to manage the changes and to settle back, long term, into school.

For some children this might happen quite quickly but it is expected that for many others this may take a long and gradual process. Schools have been told to offer support to families where a return to school is proving difficult and the Government has said that families may only receive a fine if their child does not attend school without a good reason. If you think you might need support in helping your child return to school then Barnardo’s can help. Call our See, Hear, Respond number on 0800 157 7015 or self-refer into the service at this link. Our project workers can offer support with this process.