Navigating the first few weeks of school while in a Covid storm
By Linda Stade
When this pandemic began you probably heard the line, “We’re are all in the same storm, but we are in different boats”. It was a great metaphor for the way so many people were being differently affected by the virus.
Here we are two years later, and frankly, this storm has turned from weather event to new world order. Yet still, we are all at sea and it’s hard to spot land with all the waves crashing around us.
Now our kids return to school with Covid outbreaks around the country and governments and schools still coming to terms with what may lay ahead and how it should be navigated.
Kids are all reacting differently. Some are looking forward to seeing their friends and getting on with things. Others are apathetic and disengaged because they can’t predict a future. Others are worried about their health and their families.
So, how do we help our kids in their first few weeks of school under these trying circumstances?
1. Assure them that uncertainty is okay
Threat is most profoundly heard in uncertainty. The fact is, nobody knows what is going to happen, so it is very difficult to realistically reassure a child that everything will be okay. Their uncertainty might be enhanced by the change in public policy.
Up until now, governments and schools have been absolutely focussed on making sure people don’t catch the virus, kids will wonder why that changed. Why aren’t there lockdowns? Why aren’t we being protected? That’s an understandable response.
We need to assure our kids that no matter what happens, they will cope, and we will be standing right beside them. Things don’t have to always go as planned for them to be alright. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it is okay.
2. Acknowledge that there is a problem
It is unhelpful to gaslight kids by saying, “Don’t be silly, everything is going to be fine”, “Look on the bright side”, “It could be worse”, or ‘We don’t want any bad vibes around here”. There is a problem. Science and common sense both tell us all is not right with the world. It is toxic to not acknowledge the problem.
It is helpful to let kids know, “Yes all your instincts are correct and there is a problem. However, you are not the problem, and all your emotional responses are normal.”
Remind kids of the coping skills they have already demonstrated. They have survived 100% of the bad days in the past and they will cope with what is ahead too.
3. Control what can be controlled
Routine is a tether to normality and very calming, so get kids organised and into their school and afterschool routines as quickly as possible.
School is the best place for our kids and their learning. Having a place to be, friends, connection to community and a sense of purpose are great for positive mental health and resilience. Your school will articulate the steps taken to keep children as safe as possible.
At home, kids need set times for going to bed so that they get the required amount of restorative sleep. Change is exhausting for all of us. Consistent family mealtimes, family activities and chores will also add to the feeling that if home is normal, the rough seas outside can be conquered.
Be available for kids after school, at least for the first few weeks. If that isn’t possible physically, be available emotionally with phone conversations. You could also enrol grandparents or other significant adults to be available.
4. Reignite engagement
If your child is one of those who has become disengaged from learning over the course of the pandemic, that fire needs to be reignited. Easier said than done!
Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “Don’t panic. Notice what sparks your child’s passion and interest. What does your child get excited by? Nurture it. The confidence and skills will spread. It could be a sport, making streaming content, art, gardening. It doesn’t matter if it’s not school.”
5. Stop the overwhelm.
The 24-hour news cycle is overwhelming. Social media, the radio, television, and social chat are full of gloom, doom and covid statistics. Tune out. Have a family mandate of your own, go old school, and only engage with news once a day.
You could also mandate when it is time to worry. Rather than allowing kids to ruminate all day, establish a worry time. At a set time of every day, they can express all their fears and concerns to you, talk them through, and then park them.
6. Be an emotion coach
Most often kids will not express their worry and fear directly. They are more likely to tell you via emotional outbursts and tantrums, or the other extreme, quietly withdrawing and avoiding people or decisions. Some kids will fight with siblings, others will display repetitive behaviours. It’s a mixed bag, but all these behaviours require connection and coaching.
Listen carefully to what your child says to you in their words and actions. Listen, not to fix but to understand. Being heard will help more than you can imagine.
Acknowledge all feelings as valid and then coach them in problem-solving. Don’t automatically jump in and provide solutions for your child, they are disempowered enough already.
Give them time and help them to articulate what it is that will make them feel safer and less worried. If they are too overwhelmed to provide solutions, provide gentle options so they at least have a choice and are part of the decision making.
Finally… find hope
Pandemic or not, we seldom live life in a straight line. There are always challenges and detours. That sounds glib, but it’s true. The trick is to find hope and grow it.
For me, hope is most clearly seen in the natural world: The birds that visit my backyard every day; the sheer strength and age of the giant gum trees at my local park; the smell of the Australian bush when hiking. These things are unchanged. They are a reminder of the much bigger picture that we are all a part of. There is hope in that for me. Find where the hope lives for you and your kids.