Coronavirus has turned our world upside down and as we move into the new 2021 school year, starting or returning to school this year may be a bit different for children and parents alike. Newy With Kids caught up with Newcastle clinical psychologist, kids yoga and mindfulness teacher and acclaimed author Lynn Jenkins, for some helpful tips on supporting our children as they jump into a brand new year of learning.
Off to a good start
Starting school can be nerve wracking for children at the best of times, but with the current global pandemic still causing unpredictability, and rules and regulations around schools changing all the time, reassuring our kids that school is a safe and positive place is as important as ever. “Kids need to feel safe,” explains Lynn. “Our brain really only has two options to choose from about any type of situation – whether we are safe or unsafe.”
When our children go to school for the first time, start a new year of school or face any situation that is unpredictable, it is important to always focus on the part of the story that is safe. “With heading off to school, we need to guide our kids’ attention to these safe factors such as the notion that teachers are trained in how to keep them healthy, that the principal is always getting the latest information to keep them safe and healthy and that they have lots of sanitizer and special cleaners at school and these are all great things,” says Lynn.
Facing the unpredictable
Not knowing what the future holds can be challenging for children. Generally, human beings like to be prepared, so when the world turns upside down and things that were once considered very normal, like walking our children in through the school gate, or helping out with school activities like class reading or attending sporting games and assemblies, are now up in the air, anxiety and stress can result.
But learning to cope with unpredictability can teach us all valuable life skills and help our children learn to ‘go with the flow’, to adapt to change and to above all, be resilient.
“Highlight to your children how much change they have dealt with before in their lives –whether they have just gotten on with something they didn’t really want to do like swimming lessons or at least found some way to deal with something they felt uncomfortable about, like tidying their room,” says Lynn. “Next highlight the qualities that got them through these times, like persistence, determination, learning new things about themselves or that they can actually do things that they thought would be difficult.”
Lynn says it is also helpful to explain to children how much our thoughts can ‘create’ stories about how things are going to be, when in actual fact, they may turn out differently.
Buying new school shoes and stationary supplies is the easy part – but sending our children back to school when things may be different or not as accessible as before Covid hit our shores, can be challenging. “The best approach to take when it comes to ‘things not being in our control’ is ‘flexibility’ which can be difficult for both kids and adults!” explains Lynn.
With years of experience in helping children navigate big feelings and emotions, Lynn’s wonderful flexible tree concept is worth exploring with your little ones.
The idea is that there are two trees – one is tall and straight with no leaves and the other is tall with many branches and leaves. When a big wind blows, the tall straight one has no room to move and eventually will break if the wind is strong enough. Whereas, the other type of tree will bend and move with the wind, and when the storm is over, it goes back to normal. This latter tree is ‘flexibility’, the other tree is ‘rigidness’ and the windstorm is anything that causes us big emotions.
“The idea is to let kids know that no one can control the rules in terms of what we are allowed to do at school this year, like parents attending assemblies etc BUT the teachers try to include them as much as they can (by using Zoom and other communication techniques), and that our children can ‘handle it,'” says Lynn. “It’s kind of like loaning our children our confidence so they can handle difficult things and explain and act out how it is easier being the ‘easy breezy tree’.”
ACTIVITY: Use the ‘Trees’ picture as a conversation starter with your little ones and explain how we can all be ‘easy breezy’ by thinking about and utilising the qualities that we naturally have on board to help us to be more flexible (like courage, patience, persistence, determination, being able to yield), and then talk about what times we tend to be more rigid. Perhaps get your children to draw and colour their own ‘trees,’ both rigid and flexible, and talk about situations at school when they might identify with these trees.
Parents can help to bolster their children before the school year begins by getting back to basics and finding practical activities to do together. “Help them to feel a sense of mastery in something, anything,” explains Lynn. “It could be toileting hygiene, being able to handle their lunch box and drink bottle with no problems, tie their shoes or know where they walk into school.”
Lynn also suggests guiding our children’s attention to the qualities they have as little people to cope with difficult things. Try to remind your children of a time in the past where they have done a challenging thing (surfed a wave, ridden a bike, climbed a tree, had a sleepover) and where they have displayed amazing qualities – they might be brave, friendly, easy-going, persistent, determined or any number of things – this could help them believe they will handle school well.
When the freedom and fun of the summer school holidays come to an end, its normal for children to feel a little bit nervous about returning to the rhythm and routine of school. Lynn explains it is also very normal for parents to feel concerned about what the coming school year may hold. “I think uncertainty about any future events is valid given that COVID is still very much in the news,” says Lynn. “But it comes down to where we choose to put our attention in regards to how uncertainty affects us. Where our attention goes our feelings will flow!”
Lynn advises that it is best to stay with what is known at any given moment and be aware when we start creating ‘what might happen’ scenarios in our mind. “It is okay to have loose plans for if we need to homeschool or go onto lockdown again, but it wouldn’t be mentally healthy to have this as the prime focus,” says Lynn.
For parents with children starting kinder, this is a very different year than it may have been in the past for a first-time school-starter. There may be limited time allowed on the school grounds with your kindergarten child and it may be a little more difficult to socialize with fellow parents than in previous years.
Focusing on the positive experiences and opportunities that the year presents and being excited for your child is very important. “I like the idea of ‘Flowers and ‘Weeds'” says Lynn.
“Our attention is like a hose and whatever we water grows. So, if we focus on the weeds (negative things, things we haven’t got, created catastrophic thought stories, etc) they will grow. BUT, if we choose to put our attention on the flowers (the better/lighter things, things we are grateful for, what we are excited about, being more independent, meeting new people) they will grow!” This is a great picture to put on the fridge or wall and keep reminding our children about as they start the school year.
ACTIVITY: Use a white board or a colourful piece of paper and write this calming manta down, and place in the kitchen or somewhere that you can read through it with your children, so they feel calm and excited about heading back to school.
I can do hard things
I am the BOSS of my brain and I choose to be… (excited, curious, calm, brave, etc)
Where my attention goes my feelings flow
I control where I shine my attention torch
Need more tips?
For more calming tips for kids, you can find Lynn Jenkins via her Life Matters website, Best Starts Facebook page and Lessons of a Lac Facebook page or check out Lynn’s new Boss Brains emotional regulation live program for kids aged 5 – 10 starting soon!
When Odette Tonkin isn’t writing, she’s chasing after her four kids on their Newcastle urban acreage, surrounded by her veggie garden, chooks and bees! Odette has worked as a newsreader, public relations officer and spent over ten years as a writer and editor at Pacific Magazines, writing for a bunch of magazines including TV Hits, Girlfriend, K-Zone, Total Girl, New Idea and Famous.