By Leah Henzen (Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology)
Since talking with friends, family, teachers and clients these last few days, I know I’m not alone in feeling really anxious and sad about our young children returning to school this week. In many ways it feels like this week is bigger, more challenging and more unknown that all the changes we have faced in recent months through COVID-19. So, please take a moment with me to acknowledge all that we are asking and expecting of our little people, their parents, their teachers, support staff and principals.
Like us, most Australian families have done their best with at home learning for the past two months. We’ve explained to the kids why they couldn’t go see their grandparents or cousins, let alone friends; why they couldn’t use playgrounds or picnic tables; why their sports were cancelled and why they couldn’t visit cafes for breaky like we love to do. We have taught social distancing, and “wash your hands” has been our mantra. And the kids have been amazing. They’ve taken on all of this, adapted better than we could have imagined. Now, we ask even more of them.
Now we are telling our kids it is safe to go back to school. Well, it’s safe as long as parents don’t come on the school grounds, so you’ll need to say goodbye to us quickly, and in the car before walking into school by yourself. School is safe if you don’t use the water taps; your classroom is set up differently and you don’t share books, pencils or toys with your friends. It’s safe if only the younger grades go back first. It’s being kept safe by ensuring you only play in some areas of the yard, which are different to where your brother will be, so I’m sorry but you can’t play with him at school for now (keeping in mind these brothers have been each other’s only playmate for 8 of the last 9 weeks, and have forged an even stronger bond because of it). You’ll need to wash and sanitize your hands A LOT and don’t get too close to your teachers. After school, I won’t be able to be outside your classroom, instead you’ll need to stand with your teachers outside of school and wait for me to drive around to collect you. We can’t stay and play with your friends like we used to sometimes, and the playgrounds can’t be used out of school… they’re still not safe!
I know these regulations come from the government and are intended to do just this – keep our kids, teachers and wider community safe. But boy we are asking A LOT of our littlest people! We are asking so so much, but not just of our children, also of ourselves as parents, teachers, support staff and principals.
As parents, this is not the world we chose to bring children into. It’s certainly not the environment we decided to send our children to school in. We are now being asked to completely trust our teachers and our school with the health, safety and care of the most precious things in our life at a time our security and safety is most challenged. For the first time we are being asked to send our children into a place that we are not allowed to enter. We can’t go to see how this new school system works. We can’t steal a peek through the window on our way out and see our little ones laughing at the facial expressions of their teacher as she reads them their morning book. I can’t expect that if there’s a thunder storm one day, which terrifies my five-year-old, his teacher will wrap him up on her knee to comfort him like she did earlier this year. That scares and saddens me. And, how must that also be for her, my boys teacher? If my little boy is crying and scared, yet she knows her directive is to maintain social distance, what can she do? I think of the teacher who is asked to help an anxious child separate from her parent yet is also expected to maintain social distance…we are asking SO much of everyone involved in schools.
Similarly, I can’t imagine that there’s a teacher, support person or principal that ever expected or wanted to teach or run schools under these circumstances. They are now told it’s safe for children to be among each other, but there are risks to their own health if they get too close to the children or the other adults among them. We are asking them to teach from 1.5 metres away, or risk their health. We are asking them to keep distance from their own supports, each other, all the while keeping our children’s, emotional, physical and educational needs their priority. We are asking them to come to school every day for our children, while many of us work from home to continue to protect ourselves and our family. Our school staff no longer have that safety. Again, we are asking SO much.
With all of this in mind, it is little wonder so many of us are feeling on edge about the upcoming week. None of us have been in this situation before, or witnessed how children will respond. Watching my daughter dance to Frozen II this morning I thought it really does feel like we’re heading “into the unknown, into the unknoooowwwwwnnnnnn”. And because it is so unknown it’s hard to know what is the best way to manage it. We can all do our best to support our children, prepare them for school as they haven’t seen it before, take time to look after ourselves and to lean on our supports, show thanks and appreciation to our schools. We can model hope, confidence, trust and honesty to our children teaching them some of life’s most important lessons.
But maybe above all else this week, we can show high levels of compassion and understanding. When the child who was so excited to return to school, comes home angry and tantrums, because the changes were just more than they expected or knew how to cope with and they don’t know how to say just that, we can hold them, love them and not scold them. When our teachers don’t respond to our emails because unbeknown to us they’ve also felt anxious all day and have taken what time they’ve had in their lunch break to call their partner and build their reserves to be with our children until we can, we can assure them it’s ok, we know it’s hard for all of us, we understand. And when we parents cry because there’s no milk left for our morning coffee, or snap at our partners for being home 5 minutes late, we can remind ourselves, ‘you never planned to have to parent like this’, ‘SO much is being asked of you right now’, and find a shoulder to rest on.
It’s a cliché been used so much over the past few months, but it’s true, we are all in this together, with our different paths, our individual routes and challenges, we will all get through this together.
Wishing everyone involved in schools the very best for this week and all that follows.