A new school year poses challenges for students of all ages. Change, uncertainty and having to adapt to new routines and relationships, often involves a tricky transition period.
For families in international schools, these challenges can be greater for many reasons, especially during the current Coronavirus pandemic.
Whatever the age of your child, it’s important not to underestimate the impact on them. Even as young children, they will be aware of tension around them; and older children will feel it directly. As always with mental health, it is important to recognize this: acknowledge it as a natural part of life; and take proactive steps to support your child and your family. Just as returning to school often involves getting back into sleep routines and healthier eating, taking explicit care of mental wellbeing is vital too.
Practical tips to help your child cope when far from family
Here are some practical suggestions about how this can be done:
- Talk, talk, talk. Acknowledging, rather than ignoring, difficulties is key. As a parent, be open about how you feel to show that talking about tough emotions is fine. With a young child, this can be as simple as saying, “I feel sad when I have to say goodbye to Granny.” Modelling this will help your child be open about their own feelings too.
- Ask questions. If your child isn’t very open, find opportunities to encourage them to be. Go for a walk together and start the conversation with, “I’ve noticed you aren’t yourself at the moment, are you okay?” Listen, without interrupting, making judgements or offering solutions. Your child knowing that they are being listened to, and cared for, can make all the difference.
- Stay in touch. Make an even greater effort than usual to stay in touch with family and friends you can’t see. Daily video calls, exchanging photos via text or weekly family quizzes/games on Zoom might make the transition period easier to deal with.
- Print photos. This may seem strange in the modern age when all our photos are on devices. Yet the physical act of choosing photos together of people you miss or special moments on holiday, creating a collage and sticking it up so that you can chat often about the great times you had, can make the distance feel smaller.
- Bed-time stories. Ask family members abroad to call at bed-time to read your child a story in their mother-tongue language. Not only will this help them with their language skills, but it will enable them to bond with family at a vulnerable time of day when emotions often come to the surface.
- Allow your child to cry. All too often, due to our natural instinct to protect them, our first words when our children cry are “Don’t cry”. This teaches them that crying, and expression of emotions, is wrong. Try alternatives such as, “I can see this is hard for you” or “Have a good cry, you’ll feel better.” Simply hug them and allow them to let their tricky feelings go.
- Focus on what they can control. If they are nervous about differences with the way countries are dealing with Coronavirus, allow them to talk and then help them focus on what is within their control. Remind them that washing their hands is the most important thing they can do; and reassure them that vulnerable or older relatives are taking extra precautions to look after themselves.
- Encourage connections. If possible, try to build up a network of connections from your home country. Spending time with others who speak the same language or share cultural traditions, can make being away feel more familiar and comfortable. Prioritise this at the trickiest times, such as the start of term.
- Send letters and cards. Technology has dramatically reduced the number of cards and letters we send in the post; yet the joy of both posting and receiving one, especially from abroad, is well worth the effort. I recently asked my Year 4 class to post a letter to a family member they hadn’t seen for a while and the activity created a real buzz of excitement for the senders and the recipients.
- Family gratitude. Research has shown that expressing gratitude is highly beneficial to wellbeing. This could be sharing what you are grateful for each day over dinner; having a family gratitude jar to fill with gratitude notes; or each having a Gratitude Journal to write in before bed. Expressing what you are grateful for, perhaps about your family in your home country or the positive aspects of returning to school, helps the brain switch from its natural tendency to focus on the negative.
As a mother of fifteen-year-old twins, and a full-time teacher, I am well aware that a long list of suggestions/strategies can seem overwhelming; especially at the start of a school year when so much is going on. Perhaps you could read this list as a family and choose one idea that you would like to adopt? Step-by-step, we can all make mental health and wellbeing a family priority by making these simple choices. This has always been important but in 2020 it has become crucial.
Year 5 Class Teacher
Wellbeing and Mental Health Curriculum Leader
Junior School Leidschenveen, The British School in The Netherlands