Prepare children to return to school

Coronavirus: Preparing children and young people to return to school

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a period of enormous change and uncertainty. Children and young people experienced the sudden and unexpected closure of schools with little opportunity to say goodbye to friends and teachers. They have had to adapt to a new way of life very quickly.

Returning to school will also be a period of change and uncertainty for children and young people. They may have different start and break times, they may be kept in small groups, they may not be able to socialise with their friends or use school equipment and resources as before. They may have a different teacher and teaching assistants or be in a different classroom. They may have to wear masks and have regular COVID tests.

Schools can provide a familiar routine, a sense of community and something that is a secure and constant in children and young people’s lives. When this is disrupted it can be very unsettling, especially for bereaved children and young people.

A settling back in period and time for reconnection will be needed. It may take time for children to get back into a routine and to adjust to life back at school. Families will need to find their ‘new normal’.

For children who continued to go to school throughout lockdown, the return of other children will present a big change for them too. They may have got used to school being quieter, with smaller groups and less focus on academic work. These children will also need support in preparing for this change.

How will children and young people feel about returning to school?

For some children, school closures may have been welcomed, while for others school may be sorely missed. The return to school, whenever it may be, will be another big change for children and families to navigate.

Children often find change particularly difficult, especially if the change is sudden and if they don’t understand when and why changes are happening. Change can trigger feelings of loss, fear, instability and powerlessness, and for children who have experienced the death of a loved one, change can activate existing feelings of loss.

The fear and anxiety felt by many during the pandemic, may mean that it will take time for children to feel safe being back at school. They may be concerned for the health of themselves or family members.

It is likely that social distancing and safety measures will mean that for children, young people and teachers, school may feel very different to how it was before the lockdown. This could be unsettling and worrying for children.

In the lead up to a return to school and during the first days and weeks back, children may experience lots of different emotions and feelings. It is important that children are supported to manage this transition both by teachers and the other adults in their lives.

How can parents and teachers support children and young people who are going back to school?

1. Prepare them for what to expect

Helping children to prepare for change is the first step in tackling any transition. Talking openly about when and why things will happen helps children to make sense of the world around them. It is important to make sure that they know what is going to happen as far as is possible so that there are no surprises. This can help them to feel safe and secure. Try to talk to your children as much as possible about what to expect.

2. Get back into a routine

Getting back into a routine can be a great way to prepare for a return to school. Bedtimes and waking times may have changed during lockdown; try to adjust these gradually so that children are ready for the school day.

It may help parents to begin to get the practicalities ready for school – for example clean school uniforms and gather up the school equipment. Remember, the reopening of schools will be a big change for many parents too.

3. Listen to children and young people

Just being there and available to listen to children’s thoughts and feelings is so important. Acknowledging these feelings without judgement or needing to find solutions immediately can help children to open up and share their concerns with you. It can be helpful to reassure children that their feelings are natural and that you are there for them. Every child is different and will experience things in their own way.

4. Encourage them to talk

Sometimes, children can find it difficult to talk about how they are feeling. They may not have the words or know what to say. It can help to offer prompts and open questions as a starting point for conversations. Here are some suggested questions that parents and teachers could ask children to help them talk about their feelings about going back to school:

  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What might be hard?
  • What do you think will be ok?
5. Keep talking once they go back to school

Once children and young people have returned to school, parents may find that asking about their day can often lead to a shrug and “I can’t remember”. Again, offering them prompts to start conversations can help them to open up and share some of their feelings more easily. Here are some examples:

  • What was good about your day?
  • What was difficult about your day?
  • What went ok today?
6. Offer reassurance

Some children may need lots of reassurance about returning to school. It will be important for parents and teachers to communicate so that families know what to expect and what safety measures the school are putting in place. Parents will then have more knowledge to be able to share with their children.

If children are anxious about returning to school or separating from their parents, it can be helpful to talk to remind them of the things they enjoy at school. Having some fun and rewarding activities planned could help to boost children’s positivity and sense of achievement. It can be helpful to talk to children about what is staying the same, as well as what is changing during times of transition – this can increase their sense of stability.

7. Look after yourself

The coronavirus pandemic has put enormous strain on parents, carers, families and teachers. No one has been unaffected. Taking time to look after ourselves and each other is so important.

Where to get support

The Winston’s Wish Freephone National Helpline is continuing to operate as normal. If you need advice on supporting a bereaved child returning to school, you can call us on 08088 020 021 (9.00am-5.00pm, Monday-Friday), email us on or use our online chat.

Our Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger is available 24/7 for urgent support in a crisis. Text WW to 85258.

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