Tips to prepare your child for their return to the classroom

October 1, 2021
COVID support
By Reframing Disability
Primary School Kids, Wearing School Uniforms And Backpacks, Running On A Walkway Outside Their School Building, Front View

With the news of lockdown lifting, and children returning to the classroom, many parents in Greater Sydney will be thinking about what this means for their child and how can they adequately prepare them for the transition back to school. Some students may have been attending school throughout this period, but for children with disability, they may not have entered into their classroom or seen their teachers or friends since June 2021.  

While this news may be exciting for some, many parents, including parents of children with disability, may be nervous about their child’s return to school, and be curious as to how they can support them to ensure a smooth transition back to the classroom. To prepare children and support their social and emotional needs, there are a number of strategies that parents can implement to prepare for a positive return to the classroom. 

Open communication with the school 

Over the last few months, we have received a lot of information regarding students returning to the classroom from the NSW Government, the media, and the wider community. To receive the most accurate, up to date information, it is important to maintain clear communication with your child’s school. Parents may have maintained communication with the classroom teacher throughout the remote learning period, or they may have received very limited communication at all. Schools are still open, so I encourage parents to contact your child’s school to discuss how your child has managed over the lockdown, share positive experiences, and discuss any barriers of your child’s return to school. Discuss your child’s return to school date and seek clarity regarding what this will look like for your child (will they be in their own class, will they have new break times, will they be in the same classroom, etc). With this information, you will be able to prepare a timeline for your child and develop their school readiness skills before they return.  

Rebuild the relationship between your child and their teacher 

To minimise anxiety on return, children can re-establish their relationship with their teacher by opening lines of communication. Children can write a card to their teacher, thanking them for the help during remote learning and sharing their excitement with the prospect of returning to school. They can write about all the things they have missed at school and how excited they are to return to the classroom. They can ask their teacher questions, and as parents we can encourage a response, either through digital platforms (email, Seesaw, etc) or by a return letter. Your child could create a presentation with images gathered throughout lockdown and share these experiences with their teacher. This will promote connection and prompt communication with the teacher, as the teacher will be aware of some experiences the child had at home. 

The COVID Safe School environment 

As the risk of contracting COVID19 are still high, the school environment will look very different in the eyes of a child. The Department of Education have provided a level system, and when students return to school, they will not be engaging in school sport, assemblies, choir, dance and other extra-curricular activities. There will be staggered break times and more opportunities for outdoor learning experiences, to minimise social interactions between students and staff.  

Teachers and staff will be wearing face masks, and students will also be encouraged to wear masks while at school. Children with disability do have an exemption for wearing masks, however the staff that work with your child may be provided with a clear Perspex face shield or an adapted face mask, that is clear in the mouth area. Staff who are providing self-care to students will be required to wear PPE equipment including gloves, a plastic gown and a face shield or glasses with a face mask. This may be confronting for some children, as they will not be used to their teaching staff wearing equipment that is more used in a health setting. It is therefore recommended to discuss this with your child prior to their return, and if possible, show this equipment to your child and demonstrate how it is used. 

Should a positive COVID case present at school, or within the school community, the school will be deemed as Non-Operational and will be required to close for cleaning. Ensure that the school has your most up to date contact details so they can contact you directly if your child has been a close or casual contact. If a positive COVID case is present, you will receive clear communication from the school and NSW Health and be advised on the status of self-isolation that is required. Once the contacts have been notified and the school has been cleaned, the school will be classified as Operational and will be able to open again. If you have any concerns, it is important to contact the school and seek clarification when required. 

As communicated by the NSW Government, teachers and school staff will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID19 by the 8th of November 2021. This will be done to minimise the spread of COVID19 and protect the health and safety of students and staff.  Due to the changing nature of COVID19, and the safety precautions to manage the risk of infection, the most recent information states that NSW schools will increase safe hygiene practices including extra cleaning, handwashing, mask wearing and physical distancing. 

Practice Safe, Healthy Hygiene 

As we have been living with COVID for some time, many children would have learnt and have been practicing safe, healthy hygiene. Before your child returns to school, it is important to revisit these practices, as they will be required to have safe hygiene during school. Build hand washing into your child’s routine and practice using hand sanitizer. Remind your child of how to safely sneeze into their elbow and use and dispose of a tissue. Should your child display COVID symptoms at school, such as a cough or runny nose, they will be taken to the sick bay and you will be contacted to collect your child.  

Support your child’s emotional regulation 

Your child may be feeling excited to return to school to be with their teachers and friends, or they may have some anxiety around returning to school in a different environment. If your child is feeling anxious, it is important that you validate their worries and talk through them with your child. Some children don’t present anxiety in the traditional form, and some children don’t have the skills to be able to communicate their anxiety effectively. You may see changes in your child’s behaviour, including a change in sleeping patterns, a change in toileting, restlessness, hyperactivity, a change in eating habits, seeking comfort or reassurance or demonstrating connection seeking behaviours.  

When you look at your child’s behaviour, try to figure out what they may be communicating and see it as an opportunity to tune in and connect with your child. Use the opportunity to co-regulate and help them calm, easing their anxiety and tuning in to their needs. If your child is heightened before going to bed, limit screen time two hours before going to sleep, watch something relaxing with them and read them a story. Engage in a calm and consistent routine so they know that they are heard and supported, and they can rely on you for safety. 

Children absorb the world around them, and pick up on the emotions of their parents. They may hear about COVID19 on the television or they may hear you talk with your partner about the restrictions or your anxiety around going back to school, and this may increase their anxiety around COVID19. Children are very quick to pick up the emotions of their parents and as hard as it is, during these times we need to maintain calm within ourselves and minimise the exposure of conversations about COVID19 to children, so they feel safe and secure.   

If your child is particularly anxious about returning to school, you may want to talk with your allied health team and write a social story about going back to school. Include photos of your child’s school, classroom, teacher and friends and talk positively about all the fun things that they will be doing at school with their friends towards the end of the school year. You may also take your child for a walk to school, standing safely outside the school fence, to familiarise them with the setting and prepare them for their return. 

Visual Schedule  

Children thrive around routines and predictability and feel empowered when they are kept informed. By creating a visual schedule around your child’s return to school, they will be able to understand when they will be returning to school and will be included in the countdown until school returns. In most families, a monthly calendar will be helpful to support your child, however some children would benefit from a weekly calendar. 

Monthly Calendar Tips: 

  • Create a calendar for October to be modified for your child.  
  • Outline visually (written or using a picture) the days your child will be learning from home.  
  • On the day your child is due to return to school, outline visually by writing or using a picture, to highlight their return to school date. 
  • If you have different children returning at different times, you will need to differentiate this. For example, have a picture of child 1 when they go back to school and child 2, when they go back to school. 
  • If your child attends school on certain days due to your work commitments, prior to the return to face-to-face learning, you will be able to also put these dates in the calendar. 
  • Children may also return to face-to-face therapy during October, so make sure you visually include when your child will return to therapy as well. 

Weekly Calendar Tips: 

  • Create a weekly schedule to be modified for your child. 
  • Outline visually what events will occur that week, learning from home, returning to school, therapy, etc.  

Re-establish Healthy Routines at Home 

During lockdown, many families became relaxed about rules and routines in the home and with the return to school date getting closer, now is the perfect time to re-establish healthy routines at home. 

Screen time: 

With learning from home happening over Zoom, Seesaw, Google Classroom and other digital platforms, your child may have become more accustomed to being on their screens. Now is the time to minimise the screen use and limit screen time to be used for online learning and limited recreation time. When your child returns to school, they will not have the same amount of access to technology, so it is best to ween them off it gently over the next few weeks, before they return to the classroom. This will support their teachers and also get them used to handing over the screen when required. 

Sleep Hygiene: 

Sleep is so important for children (and adults) as it promotes brain development, emotional regulation and positive health. In order for your child to have a good night sleep, they must have a healthy sleep routine that enables them to fall asleep at a reasonable time and move through the various stages of sleep. Throughout lockdown, families may have become more relaxed about what time their children go to bed, or letting them sleep in longer than normal, however it is important to get them back into a healthy sleep routine before school returns.  

Over the next couple of weeks, parents can minimise screen time before bed (2 hours before) as this provides the brain an opportunity to prepare for sleep. For example, if your child goes to bed at 8pm, they should be off the screens from 6pm. In these two hours, your child can engage in a warm bath, put on comfy pyjamas and rest with you chatting, colouring, doing a puzzle, playing a game or reading. At bed time, tuck them into bed, read a story and prepare them for sleep. Older children may engage in a visualisation or breathing exercise if they are having difficulty getting to sleep. 

Healthy Diet: 

Throughout lockdown you may have become relaxed about the foods your child eats and now is a good time to get back into their healthy food habits. When remote learning returns, you and your child could prepare their recess and lunch, as they would if they were going to school. Use the containers that they use at school and use this time to get your child into the habit of using their lunchbox again. This will also prepare you for the back-to-school routine of lunch box preparation when the time comes, so we’re just as prepared as the children. 

Rebuilding friendships 

Children are social beings who learn through interacting with the people around them. During lockdown, social interactions with friends were limited and mainly occurred through online platforms. As a result, children’s social skills may be impacted and as parents, we can encourage children to rebuild these friendships before our children return to the classroom. The NSW Government recently announced that children can have ‘bubble buddies’, where they can gather and play with friends while the stay at home orders are in place. Children can select two friends from the same LGA and gather at one of the child’s homes to play. Children can also gather at parks for picnics with other families.  

Families can utilise these initiatives to reconnect their children with their friends before they return to the classroom. Parents can assist their child to reach out to their friends and invite them over for play or to go on a picnic. This will provide the children with an opportunity to practice their social skills and navigate friendships that may have changed over lockdown, and parents can support their child throughout this process. 

Sharing the news of returning to school with your child

As restrictions slowly lift around NSW, parents can support their child with disability as they return to school, by maintaining a calm, positive and informed approach. By providing clear, consistent information to your child, and framing the return to school in a positive light, children will feel safe, secure and supported as they return to school, after the uncertainty of the COVID19 lockdown. 

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About the author:

Kate Ford is a Content Developer for Reframing Disability. She is also an educator and passionate advocate for children with disability. She has over 10 years experience educating and supporting young people with complex needs and their families.

Kate lives in Sydney with her husband Daniel and two children Lachlan and Amelia. Lachlan is an endearing, energetic 8 year old and has Autism and an Intellectual Disability. Amelia is a delightful and curious 2 years old, who has Global Developmental Delay and Joint Hypermobility. 

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