In this post the context and impact of lockdown on children and returning to school will be explored. Additionally, practical suggestions will be outlined to assist with minimising the negative impact of lockdown on children and how to navigate returning to school.
The COVID-19 lockdown has no precedent
There is no precedent for our current COVID-19 lockdown. Even though necessary, there are likely to be negative consequences from social isolation and continued social distancing.
The United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (UN IASC) reports that feelings of anxiety, helplessness, loneliness and fear of being socially excluded, stigmatised or separated from loved ones, are common in any epidemic. While, prolonged stress, boredom and social isolation, as well as a decrease in physical activity, can lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children.
A child’s age and maturity may impact how much they understand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the processing of information as well as ensuring that a child has drawn correct conclusions, can only happen through conversations. Accordingly, Michele Roccella, Associate Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the Department of Psychology, Pedagogical and Educational Sciences, University of Palermo, Italy, emphasises the importance of explaining to children, regardless of their age, what the COVID-19 pandemic is, what has happened and what could happen.
Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit, has started that “while children are resilient, we cannot underestimate the impact the pandemic is having on their mental wellbeing and overall health. Children in a stable environment are likely to fare better, but many children are not so fortunate.” She further warns that negative feelings and thinking, fuelled by anxiety and worry, have a negative impact on mental health.
Leaving lockdown and going back to school is not going to be like returning to school after a long holiday. For months we have all been told that it’s safer to remain home, safer to be away from family, friends and other people. Now, children are being told to prepare to go back to school. Studies show that children are worried about family members getting sick. And that going back to school or seeing friends means that they are at greater risk of exposing themselves, as well as loved ones, to the virus.
The impact of lockdown on children
In both adults and children, sudden and highly distressing events can invoke a trauma response. In simple terms, this means that and event or experience overwhelms one’s coping mechanisms and makes it difficult to fully process the emotions that are related to it. Revisiting the same or similar experiences later down the line can continuously invoke these difficult emotions, affecting our wellbeing.
Depending on their age and maturity, a child’s individual experience will vary. Most often, it is the interpretation of an event that matters most, which is likely to differ from individual to individual. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to protect against the effects of distressing events.
Some practical steps are to:
- Encourage talking and sharing of feelings. Start by sharing yours in an honest, age appropriate manner
- Consistently reassure children that there is no such thing as a “silly” question or feeling
- Remember to have “normal” conversations about pets, things to do on the weekend and finishing up homework
- Decrease time spent on social media platforms, especially those with upsetting media coverage
- Have a plan for what to do if someone in your household gets sick with COVID-19 and discuss this plan with your children
- Have a daily schedule, as routine helps create stability and certainty
- Know your work place’s family responsibility COVID-19 policy
Return to school or stay home?
Each household’s circumstances are different. Therefore, the risk of continued home schooling or going back to school varies from child to child. Basic Education’s Minister Angie Motshekga, has outlined the department’s requirements for schools to safely reopen and provided an overview of the reworked 2020 school calendar. The decision for a child to return to school, once they are able to, has been left up to parents. Should they decide to keep their child at home for the remainder of the school year, then parents are required to formally apply for home education as outlined in the South African School’s Act.
However, many parents cannot work from home. They need to go into their workplace and don’t always have access to affordable, safe child care. Complicating matters is that during the lockdown period, online schooling has reportedly only reached around 20% of the South African school going population. Due to the current reliability of internet connections, it is expected that even less children (10-15%) will be able to continue their online schooling in the longer run.
Preparing to go back to school in lockdown
As going back to school in a lockdown isn’t the same as after a long holiday, different preparations are needed to ensure that children feel comfortable within the evolving “new norm”.
Three ways to practically prepare your child for school:
- Personal protection equipment (PPE) is now an everyday requirement:
- Practice putting on and taking off masks
- Ensure that their mask is as comfortable as possible
- Discuss why wearing a mask, washing or sanitising hands often and taking of temperatures is necessary
- Ask who they will talk to if they don’t feel safe because someone isn’t following the new rules
- Talk about going back:
- Act as a sounding board, listening to them ahead of offering advice
- Let them air their concerns and assure them that none of them are trivial
- Emphasise the good things about going back to school to learn
- Discuss how everyone in your household is going to ensure that each other are kept safe, now you able to leave home again
- Reassure them of and discuss their school’s safety measures
- Do the basics:
- Make a check list of things to take to school to adhere to new requirements
- Lay out clothes and PPE the night before
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Don’t skip breakfast
- Leave earlier so there’s time to get through the new safety protocols at school in time for class
Back at School during Lockdown
Some children are going to take to the evolving “new norm” like a duck to water. Others are going to take longer. It’s likely that nervousness and worry will continue to pop up for a while. So, conversations to reassure your child could be repetitive and following up on how school is going will be more necessary than before.
4 things to remember when asking questions:
- Ask open ended questions rather than yes/no questions e.g.: What did you enjoy most about school today?
- Share something about your day and then go into questions about theirs e.g.: I ate lunch at my desk, where did you have your snack today?
- Lead with information rather than a question e.g: You saw lots of people today you haven’t seen for a while, who did you enjoy catching up with most?
- Frame questions positively, especially avoid negative language if you know they have found something difficult e.g.: I know you all had to wear masks today, whose mask did you like best?
This transition period is bound to be fraught with challenges and anxieties for both children and parents. While debating and discussing the pros and cons of children returning to and remaining in school, remember that there are no easy decisions. And everyone will need empathy and support, as they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with their children.
What is the possible mental impact of lockdown on Children?
There is no precedent for the COVID-19 lockdown. However, the impact of prolonged stress, confusion, boredom and social isolation as well as a decrease in physical activity, has been shown to lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children, such as depression and anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a growing concern.
How do I prepare my child for school after lockdown?
Talk to your child. Continuously encourage them to air concerns and voice fears. Listen to them and reassure them of how your household and the school are working to better ensure their safety. Explain the Personal Protection Equipment purposes and processes, then practice putting on protective masks and washing or sanitising hands. Keep doing this even after they return to school.
How do I ask my child questions?
When asking your child questions remember these four things:
1. Ask open ended questions to stimulate conversation
2. Be prepared to share something in exchange for asking them to share
3. Lead with information to give your question context
4. Always frame questions positively