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Supporting back to school anxiety in a time of COVID

Supporting back to school anxiety in a time of COVID: Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, based at the Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre. Here she explains how to support young people who may be feeling anxious at the start of the new school term and struggling to adjust to new routines:

“For many young people returning to school over the next two weeks, one of the main issues regarding regular Covid testing is that they simply might not see the need. Of course, they may also find it slightly unpleasant and feel fearful of having to take further time off school if a test comes back positive. It’s also totally understandable that they just want to go back to life “being normal”.

Another common issue with returning to school (and one which occurs every September!) is that many young people find getting back to a normal sleep pattern and having to get up early for school quite a challenge and rather exhausting at first as they get back into a routine after the long summer holidays.

And don’t forget, many older children who sat GCSE and A-level exams this summer would have broken up from school much earlier than normal due to the unusual circumstances surrounding ‘teacher assessments’ – so the holiday period (and lack of routine) will have felt exceptionally long!

So, to help ease children back into school life – particularly in these continuing ‘unusual’ times – the following simple top times should offer some additional guidance to both parents and teachers:

· Where possible, re-establish a normal sleep pattern in the few days prior to school, getting to bed earlier and waking up earlier. Also, reassure your young person that lots of their friends will be feeling tired too and it’s quite normal to feel that way at the start of term. After a little bit of readjustment everyone will soon back into a good routine and full of energy and enthusiasm!

· For younger children at primary school or nursery, they should try not to nap when they come in from school as that may prevent them from getting to sleep at a good time later on – or lead to them waking too early the next morning. However tired they are, they should try to ‘keep going’, getting to bed in good time and ideally learning to wake themselves up at a similar time at weekends as they do in the week, so their body quickly gets used to this new pattern.

· For teenagers, they should try to always stay off their bed except at bedtime, (so their brain does not associate bed with social media or homework etc). They should aim to exercise and get fresh air each day, avoid caffeine after midday, (check the content of fizzy drinks), and they should develop a calm and positive nightly bedtime routine, so their body learns the next thing in the routine is sleep.

· Additionally, in an ideal world, they should have all screens turned off an hour before they want to go to sleep. If they can take responsibility for this, rather than it being a family battle, so much the better. Good sleep really does helps develop and maintain a positive mental state.

· Teachers and parents will recognise that although regular Covid testing (at home and school) might not be top of the list of any young person’s favourite activities, it’s important and acceptable to reiterate that this course of action will help to reduce the spread of the virus. If they want a return to “normality” then helping to beat the virus needs to be a team effort, with everyone playing a role.

· And, for younger children who still might be struggling with the concept (as well as the physical action) of testing, it might help if they can picture the virus as an animation in their mind and imagine themselves playing an important role by taking the test, visualising themselves sending the virus away or shrinking the power of the virus. This might enable them to feel some control of the situation and therefore they may start to see the tests in a slightly more positive light.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg
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