Home Education & Learning Back to school doesn’t have to be stressful

Back to school doesn’t have to be stressful

by Tania Griffin
A kid with a backpack on his back

The beginning of the school year doesn’t have to be a daunting time for young people. Parents and teachers can do much to help support the physical and mental well-being of their children as they navigate new schools, teachers or classrooms.

“While some anxiety is expected in children at this time, it should not be ignored,” says Dr Cathelijn Zeijlemaker, a family physician and director of Netcare’s Primary Care division, of which Netcare Medicross is a subsidiary, sharing her advice for parents to help their children through what can be a difficult time. 

She says it may not always be obvious that your child is struggling.

“Smaller children may not know how to verbalise how they are feeling, so parents should be on the lookout for signals from their children which could indicate discomfort or anxiety. These could include children seeking their reassurance more than they normally do, complaining of tummy aches or other ailments, being more emotional than usual or displaying changes in their sleeping or eating patterns,” says Dr Zeijlemaker.

“A check-up with your child’s family doctor at the beginning of the school year can help set parents’ minds at ease and distinguish any medical concerns that need to be addressed. In addition, children’s anxiety can often be helped by explaining to them that many other children will be feeling the same way,” she says. 

“Studies show that children who eat a nutritious breakfast perform better. Ensuring your child has a breakfast that contains some protein will assist them to do better in school by having better concentration and more energy.

“Make sure your children’s vaccinations are up to date and ensure they have any medication, like asthma pumps, they may need at school. Also, make sure their new class teacher knows about any medical conditions they have and how to manage them.”

Children quickly feel judged, lectured or punished and will therefore avoid talking about touchy subjects. Create an environment where you can listen uninterrupted, don’t judge and your child feels safe to share.  

The start of the year is a good time to engage about your child’s use of social media and ensure they use it safely in an age-appropriate manner. “Social media can be an important aid to learning if used correctly. Parents should keep up to date with the latest trends in social media, so they know what they are talking about when interacting with their children. Be aware of online bullying or children using social media sites in a way that is not suitable for their ages,” she says.

“A good night’s rest helps enable concentration while children are at their desks. To ensure quality sleep, parents should consider encouraging good sleep hygiene, like a set time for bed and limiting screen time in the evenings.” 

If you suspect your child may have learning challenges, immediately schedule an appointment with their school to see what they can do to help and get advice on how best you can help your child, says Dr Zeijlemaker. 

“Potential problems can sometimes be signalled by a change in your child’s appetite, weight or sleeping habits. If you have any concerns about your child’s health, including their mental or behavioural health, general practitioners, such as those practising at Netcare Medicross medical centres, are there to assist and may refer children to the services of experts like occupational therapists, paediatricians or educational psychologists where needed.”

Angela Morisse, acting clinical manager and occupational therapist at Netcare Akeso’s Milnerton Clinic, shares some practical strategies to support children during this period of adjustment, emphasising the importance of seamlessly reintegrating school life into daily routines. 

As a vital member of the multidisciplinary team at Netcare Akeso mental health facilities, she highlights the pivotal role of occupational therapy, a discipline that encompasses a thorough evaluation of an individual’s functioning within their environment, aiming to assist them in adapting and excelling in every aspect of their life. 

With the overall well-being of children navigating the challenges of returning to structured schedules in mind, Morisse provides four pragmatic ways to help children get back into a routine after the long holidays:

  • Set clear tasks, but keep it visual and fun

Make a visual chart with specific tasks and have a space to tick off each task when it has been completed. These could include going to sleep and waking up at the right time, their meal and snack times, brushing their teeth, tidying their room, packing their bag for the next day and any chores they need to do. This can be adapted when new tasks such as homework, projects and after-school activities are added.

  • Have a bedtime routine 

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine aids children in adjusting to a regular sleep schedule. This can include brushing their teeth, putting their electronic devices away at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and doing an age-appropriate calming activity such as reading, colouring in or journalling. A small reward for completing the routine every day for a week is a good motivator. This could be a trip to the park or time with family – it doesn’t have to cost money.

  • Provide emotional support

To help children with the emotional demands of starting school again, you could have a morning check-in where everyone says what emotion they are feeling. Once again, a visual chart can help younger children to express themselves better. This will allow you to keep track of your child’s emotions around school and help prompt a conversation when they pick emotions like feeling sad, scared or angry. 

Morisse emphasises the importance of making sure your child is learning in a compassionate, enabling environment where they feel safe rather than feeling that they are under pressure to excel.

“Be mindful of the expectations you set for your children, stressing the value of effort rather than just results. Don’t make them feel like they are under a lot of pressure to excel, as this can cause anxiety and stress in children and may make them want to avoid school.”

  • Teach children to care for their physical health 

Encourage children to take a break and enjoy fresh air by playing outside before starting their homework. Remember that as a child, their main occupation is play. 

“Help your children implement their routine and keep track of their homework, but don’t do it for them,” says Morisse. “You are helping them build the habits they will need to foster future independence. Avoid doing everything for them, and rather promote self-reliance based on their age.” 

Don’t forget to help your child by having a positive attitude toward their return to school. But, if you have any concerns about how your child is coping at school, seek professional advice as soon as possible. 

Netcare Medicross and Netcare Akeso have a range of practitioners who can address the needs of children of all ages.

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