Blog by Dr. Nicola McCaffrey: Compassionate Transitions
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey shares some of her thoughts on how to support our children during COVID-19

Blog by Dr. Nicola McCaffrey: Compassionate Transitions

Supporting children going back to school in the COVID-19 era.
02.August 2020 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey, Clinical Psychologist

The coronavirus outbreak has caused major disruption to the everyday lives of almost every human being living on the planet. With disruption comes change, and with change comes transition. Children and young people in particular are feeling deeply the transitions that we are all having to contend with. Whilst transitions are part of what it is to be human, and they present opportunities for personal growth, the recent pandemic caused immediate and unprecedented change, forcing us into transitions that we were not prepared nor ready to take on. The impact was immediate. Overnight businesses closed their doors, schools locked their doors and we were left with only those we lived with for comfort and connection. Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic is hard to gauge the full impact that the situation is having, and will continue to have, on our wellbeing. In particular on the mental health of children and young people’s.

Through my work as a psychologist, what I am seeing in the clinic and hearing from those round me, I have come to understand that the impact of this situation cannot be overestimated. For the children and young people that I am working with facing this a crisis at such a significant and sensitive time in their lives, is not only impacting their immediate day to day experiences it is also influencing and changing their brain development, behavior and overall mental health.

COVID has not only been a time of significant change and transition, it has also been a time of deepening and stark inequality. Not only were death rates in the poorest communities significantly higher than that of the more affluent, but individual, familial and communal experiences of the lockdown period differed greatly. So too did its impact. For some children and young people, it was largely a safe and enjoyable time where they connected with their immediate family, worked at their own pace, and enjoyed a new rhythm to their lives. For others however, it was challenging and traumatic. For those children school was a haven that provided safety, warmth and nourishment, and being at home is a deprivation. Those families that were “just coping” are spiraling into chaos and hardship with the additional pressures placed on them by the COVID outbreak.

As lockdown hit some of us enjoyed the peace and greenery of our gardens, whilst other lived in overcrowded accommodation without outdoor access. Moreover, many families have faced significant financial hardship and have struggled to provide even the most basic of necessities such as food and warmth over this time. Many have lost their jobs. Some children are living in contexts with difficult and challenging family dynamics. Collectively we have all experienced this together and can extend compassions and understanding to this shared experience. Something that the vast majority of us shared was that the COVID lockdown period led to the loss of routine, structure, connection, opportunities and freedom. These kinds of changes can trigger the emergence of anxiety, trauma and grief. Individually however experiences of the pandemic have varied greatly and therefore so too does the impact it is having on each child and young person individually.

Now, as the last of our freckles fade and we watch the summer sun dim, we find ourselves faced with another change. The schools are opening. Pupils are returning. This however will not be a return to learning as we previously knew and experienced it. As schools begin to welcome back their students a myriad of emotions are being felt, by pupils, parents and teachers alike, along with a new set of stresses. Whilst the return to school will be welcome and exciting for many, others may be feeling anxious and frightened. Parents will naturally be worried about the safety of their children when they go back to school. Parents of children with special educations needs may feel particularly uncomfortable and uncertain about this transition, and worry that that their child will not get the emotional, behavioral and educational support that they need, or the support they need with transitions to different groups, classes or schools.

All of these feelings are valid and deserve space. This is new for us all. We are trying to cope with it in the best way we know how with the tools that we have. The focus on wellbeing, staying connected and having a sense of belonging needs to be a priority at this time. It is vital therefore that schools are fully and properly prepared to create a sense of safety when children return.

Parents have played a key role in supporting their children’s learning during lockdown and will continue to do so as we move forward. This is key not only in the phase where children return to school but as we may also face a situation that, should a localised lockdown be required due to a spike in the number of cases with Covid-19, there may again be need to provide home based or blended learning until the virus is controlled.

As a parent and a mental health professional I have a foot in both camps. Both of these camps are working towards the goal of as positive transition for my children as possible. Here is what I have come to understand, through research and reading, are some of the key things we can do to allow for a compassionate transition for our children:

1. Reassure your child that it is safe to go to school
Many of us have talked to our children about the importance of home based learning to keep ourselves and other people safe. It is therefore natural that some children have come to view being at school as being risky or dangerous. It is therefore important to have conversations with our children about school being a safe place. Reassure your child that it is normal to have mixed emotions such as excitement, relief, worry and anger. Try to name emotions using words that are understandable and accessible. Leave room for your children to talk through their own worries as well as what they are looking forward to. After school is finished your child may need some extra time for connection with you as they are likely to have missed you being present in a way that they have become familiar with. They may also feel very fatigued and need some extra time to restore and recharge. There are a number of very useful and effective materials which can help to support you child to understand and manage their emotional responses. Here is a link to some of the most helpful ones that I have found that you might also like to incorporate into some of your conversations with your children:

2. Prepare your child for changes to usual school processes
It is very likely that there are considerable and numerous changes to the school itself. These might include changes to the classes and routines, as well as physical changes within the building. As much as you are able to talk these changes through with your children, how it feels different and their comfort level within it. Name any emotions that come up and normalize their presence.

3. Re-establish normal routines
We have all had to find a new pace and rhythm to life over the past months, so beginning school again can feel challenging in all of the practicalities and organization that is required ahead of time. Allow more time than usual in the first few weeks to get ready each morning and wind down each evening. Involve your child in packing their bag and readying their clothes. This can help them to prepare in their mind for the day and experiences to come. Have regular wake up and bed time routines that allow some predictability and routine.

Stay safe. Take care of yourself. And each other.

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