Beccie is an experienced psychologist working in a National and Specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at The Maudsley Hospital in South London. She works with young people of all ages, specifically between the ages of 13 and 18, who have a range of complex needs. With the return to school looming, we asked Beccie about the impact of lockdown, and what parents and children can do to make the transition as smooth as possible.
How have children responded to lockdown life and school closures?
Lockdown and school closures have been enormously difficult, for all of the young people that we work with. The removal of the key structures usually in place to help keep them well (connections with peers; school routine; time with teachers; feeling as though they are working toward their futures through tangible goals; hobbies; jobs; face-to-face health appointments; age appropriate independence, etc.) has meant that many of our young people have really struggled to keep going.
Of course, these things are important for all young people – regardless of their mental health status – and so these difficulties have been widespread. Services have seen enormous increases in referrals with people presenting for the first time, particularly with eating disorders, as lockdown and isolation have proved detrimental to their wellbeing.
What do you think the return to school will mean for children?
For many, this is very welcome news. Time at school means seeing friends, getting a fuller education and hopefully having a bit of fun. That said, the return to ‘normality’ will also pose challenges to many young people. Those with ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) who find change challenging; young people who are anxious; young people who are feeling depressed and low in motivation – amongst many others – are commonly feeling apprehensive.
When we work with young people who experience anxiety or low mood, a huge part of the work is exposure to their fear or behavioural activation to get them involved with life. For the last year, this has often not been possible in the way we would usually work. Subsequently, anxiety and depression have become more pronounced for many young people and flipping back into their old routines feels incredibly daunting.
Whilst there are likely to be challenges in the return to school and the lifting of lockdown, we are also optimistic that this will be significantly positive for young people. As the pause button has been hit on key milestones in development and growing up for the last year, the young people we work with are also feeling hopeful about what is to come.
What are the main benefits of school-based learning?
The benefits of school-based learning are endless. From an educational perspective, meaningful interaction with teachers, actively participating in lessons and the routine of physically attending school every day are all key. Many have struggled to stay motivated or engaged when working alone in their bedrooms. Distractions are plentiful and lessons have felt very difficult, particularly if they already feel as though they are falling behind in work. It has been far easier to avoid facing any difficulties without the immediate support of teachers, and many of the young people we work with have struggled to stay on top of everything, even with extra support.
Outside of lessons, interactions with peers are vital for young people’s wellbeing. Social interactions are key to development, and whilst school is often hard for children and young people in this respect, being absent from peers can also mean it is hard to maintain relationships, ultimately impacting self-esteem and confidence.
How can parents help make this as positive an experience as possible?
Generally, it will be an enormous relief for parents when their children return to school – it has been a strain on the entire family. That said, I would encourage parents to listen to and validate any difficult emotions their children might be having about going back to school. Take the time to understand how they feel, before moving into problem solving.
On a practical level, planning things in advance can help manage anxiety; making sure things like clothes, school bags, gym clothes etc. are all ready to go. Make an event of it if possible for younger children, so that it is framed as a positive activity. If possible, having some contact with friends prior to going back to school can be helpful, if this is something they are feeling anxious about. Similarly, letting teachers know in advance if there are any concerns can help contain anxiety.
Do you have any final tips for children who may be feeling anxious?
Firstly, it’s normal and understandable that you might be anxious. This has been a hard year! And there has been a lot to cope with. Recognising that you are anxious is important.
Try and use the support of your parents to talk about what you are feeling anxious about. If it would be helpful, let your teacher know you are feeling worried so that they can support you if needed when you are there. If you are feeling very nervous before school, try some paced breathing. Breathe deep into your tummy and count to three, and breathe out through your mouth whilst counting to six. This slows your heart down if it’s beating fast, and helps to reduce anxiety.
A self-soothe item (for instance, stroking a small favourite toy, or smelling some scented oils) can help to calm us down. Cheerleading statements or mantras (‘this is scary, but I know I can do it. I’ve done it before and I can do it again’) can be helpful to say to yourself. Distract yourself with music on the way to school and if you can, try and talk to some friends before you go back. Remember, it’s completely normal to be anxious, and it will get easier. The best way to tackle anxiety is head on!
As you get stuck into lessons and seeing your friends again, it will get easier. Remember all the things you enjoy about school that you haven’t been able to do – whether that’s playing sport, breaktime with friends, or doing fun things in lessons.
If things still feel really hard as school goes on, the most important thing to do is talk to someone. There are people who are there to help. So, whether that’s a parent, teacher or school counsellor, letting someone know you are struggling is vital, so that you can get more support whilst things are still difficult.