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Return to school. A trauma informed approach

From either side of the schooling fence both parents and teachers are doing more than we would have thought possible only a few weeks ago.

Parents are trying to support their schools and children by hustling their kids to submit as much work as they can, and teachers doing metaphorical backflips to tailor their online classes to their student’s needs/attention span/capacity. All adults are doing heroic efforts to buffer their children and students.

For many children the return to school will be a delightful experience. It will mean reconnecting with friends and school teachers and they will race out the front door ready to get back to normal. This however won’t be everyone’s experience. In fact, the return to school is likely to stir up some anxiety for kids, parents and teachers; a lot of anxiety about how children will be coping, as well as worry over the potential long term consequences of this academic disruption. To highlight is the need to take into account the potential emotional responses children will show upon their return to school. Children will need necessary emotional scaffolding to engage in any work that we subsequently ask of them. No one is learning when they’re distressed, and we can anticipate a lot of distress when school goes back.

At the moment they are feeling pretty stifled being at home. In their mind they are ready to get back into the world.  But It won’t the outing they envisioned.

First, children will be hit by the anticipatory anxiety of going out into a world that feels unsafe. Over the past few weeks we’ve had to teach them that the outside world is dangerous and that staying home is a must. Soon we will renege on that claim and force them back into the world we just told them was unsafe. It’s going to a tricky transition for them.

Second, once they are at school they’ll discover it isn’t exactly the same experience that they knew before COVID19. There will likely be many differences whether it be the initial lack of other year levels, or the additional safety procedures the school is implementing. This lack of congruity is likely to be uncomfortable. For children the ‘not quite the sameness’ and anticipatory anxiety will only be compounded by their innate desire to be near their caregivers and places of security when they feel distressed.

Some things you might start to see in the coming weeks include:

For parents;

• Reluctance or refusal to go to school

• Increased clingyness in the morning

• Increased tearfulness

• Poor sleep on nights before school

• Temper tantrums on school mornings

• Feeling sick- especially stomach aches, headaches and any other ache related to muscle tension (sore legs, jaws etc)

For teachers;

 

• Kids being reluctant to leave their parents

• Poor concentration and memory

• Hyperactive behaviors or withdrawn behaviors

• Increased clingyness with teachers

• Oppositional behaviors and refusal to do work

• Behaviors more suited to an earlier age

• Distractibility

We might be tempted to see these behaviors as signs of being naughty, attention seeking or just wanting to stay home because it’s easier than school. However, lessons from research into trauma and anxiety indicate that these behaviors have a far more primal and adaptive base. There’s heaps of great neuroscience behind all of this.

We’ve told our kids that the outside world is dangerous. We’ve told them this with every conceivable messaging tool we have. Right now the most sensible thing their little bodies can do is react to the invisible danger. The lower parts of their brain in charge of bodily protection have swamped the parts of their brain in charge of clear thinking, reasoning and emotion control. So they’re on high alert. Their bodies are ready to respond to a threat and they will attempt to avoid or attenuate that threat in any way they can. This might mean that they become hyper vigilant of their environment, paying attention to every small noise in and outside of the class room. This is an evolutionarily adaptive response to threat as it protects them from anything that might jump out at them. However, it also makes them easily distracted and unfocused. This also makes your body hurt and feel sick, it’s exhausting and you’re constantly a little grumpy. Most kids will be functioning this way a little bit, and many kids will be in this mode a lot.

You know who else will be in this mode? Us. We’re likely to send our children back, or receive our students, with a fair amount of trepidation. Add to that the external pressures of departmental requirements and parental work changes and our stress centers will be singing. Plus, schools are likely to get thrown back into face to face learning with the same sort of lead time they got when they got thrown into online learning. Schools are likely to be trying to pull themselves back together while dealing with new safety measures, department of education requirements and all their own personal stuff. It’s going to be hectic.

Question the behaviors you see in the children around you and question your response. Approach problematic behaviors with good faith. Predict and assume that you are facing a frightened child rather than a disobedient one. Take that empathy and patience and reframe children’s behaviors in your own mind. You’ll be amazed how powerful the presence of a sympathetic, contained and curious adult can be on the most violent of children’s behaviors.

Awareness is key to implementing any change or strategy. When you approach aggressive or regressive behaviors from a perspective of understanding and empathy you help the person (whether it be a child or yourself) understand and let go of the emotional energy that’s driving them. As people we will persist in our behaviors until we are effectively heard by the people around us. Expecting ourselves, or the children we serve, to get back to normal without acknowledging the omnipresent weirdness we are currently living is unrealistic. Returning to school will be hard on multiple levels (and joyful on others) so expect anxiety to rear its head in some weird and wonderful ways. Stay curious and stay empathetic.

Some strategies to try for parents  

Basically you want to gradually expose your kids to all things school related. You can try;

• Start your normal morning routine a week before school starts

• Visit school before it starts

• Start using language such as “when you go to school” rather than “if you go to school”

• Use visual aids such as calendars to count down to school starting.

• If you know what safety procedures your school will be implementing discuss them a few times before school starts (ie you’ll still be doing lots of hand washing, your teacher will still be using the hand sanitiser, Mrs X won’t be back at school till the virus has gone down a bit more). Be especially mindful around any “kiss and go” arrangements as children may react strongly if they were expecting you to walk them to their door.

We can also start to prime our children emotionally

• give emotions names. These can be names such as “sad”, “angry” or “worried”. But they can also be descriptive words such as “shakey”, “fuzzy”, “spiny”, “gurgley”, “heavy”.   

• Check in with kids before school starts. Ask them what they’re looking forward to, what they think might be different, what they’re expecting. Validate any fears and correct any misconceptions.

• Problem solve with kids- if something is a particular worry, work with kids to help come up with a few solutions. Include kids in this problem solving.

• Use your own feelings as a model. Have a conversation with your kids;

• Stay calm ourselves.

This point will likely be the most difficult. Stay calm ourselves. To do this in a genuine way we need to focus on ourselves as parents. Think about what you’re going to need to help support your child back to school. All this stuff takes both emotional energy and time. Think about your own resources and what you can give.  

• Communicate with your school

Perhaps for you this will be possible, but it’s also likely that our teachers will be managing the emotional load of many children. Speak to your teacher if you can but remember that they’re going through a pandemic too and their work world has been totally flipped around. The school might be struggling to get itself back together and might not be able to respond in a way that you would like. Take the return to school slowly. It will be an exploratory process where you, your child and likely their school all figures out what’s happening together.