School's out for... Lockdown?! 

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been extreme and wide-ranging - I heard it described on a psychologists forum as the three e’s - everyone, everywhere, everything!

But as we move into the release phase, edging out of lockdown and into our much-discussed ‘new normal’ it is becoming apparent that one of the most significant and potentially concerning impacts is on children and teens. In fact, concerns are sufficiently high that in recent days first a group of senior psychologists and related experts formally expressed concern over this, calling it a ‘national disaster’, followed closely by 1500 paediatricians, who this week wrote an open letter to Boris Johnson appealing for him to urgently prioritise plans to get children back into school, and commenting that the extended period out of school “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”

This is a personal topic for me, with my kids in years 3 and 10 both are equally affected for very different reasons. It was mid-march when everything changed - and it must have seemed like a dream come true for many kids at first - schools suddenly closing, with no real sense of when they would re-open! But now, months later, with no imminent sign of normal school life returning even the most reticent of kids are starting to miss school and the massive part of their life that is missing along with it. And we’re all starting to recognise how significant school is - not just for learning - in fact the longer this goes on the more insignificant that seems in the scheme of what school offers our kids - but for social life, developmental contact and just the everyday richness of life. 

It has been good therefore to hear of the cautious beginnings of schools being able to reopen, and to see some children and young people gradually returning to classes. My daughter, like many yr 10 and 12 children next week, has now started back at school for her day a week connection in core subjects. But my son falls in the category of children now very unlikely to return before September. And we’re bracing ourselves for a slow and gradual return even then, recognising the practical challenges of getting all the children back together in the enclosed space of our local, oversubscribed, and busy schools. 

The reality is, by the time many children return to anything resembling full schooling, they will have been out of school not just for the usual summer period but for 6 months at least. And of course, there are quite rightly cautions over when and how we bring children back. As we balance the various risks of spreading the virus, very careful wisdom is required over how to reopen schools. But as professionals and parents alike make decisions about whether to send kids back into school or not it is vital we understand and do not overlook the impact that their not going will be having - not on their learning but on their minds and emotional and social wellbeing. 

You see school is about so much more than learning - just as growing into an adult is about so much more than academic success. School teachers children and teens valuable lessons - including how to focus and pay attention, impulse control, motivation, creativity, problem-solving, resilience, persistence, and managing emotions like frustration and anxiety. It is the richest of spaces for meeting new people. forging friendships, learning how to get on with all kinds of different people, making the inevitable mistakes in relationships, and learning how to unpick them and make up after falling out. It is a space where character is shaped and formed, where understanding and identity develop and potential is released: where confidence can grow and so much more is learned than just maths, English, science, or history or geography. Children and teens have a zest and energy for life and school channels that and develops it - as well as helping them learn how to control it when they need to sit still and learn! Learning alone isn’t enough - it is about the fun and social times, and of course the contact with - if you are lucky - amazing teachers who truly care about the children they get to hang out with. 

So let’s pray that our new normal can involve a return to normal for children and teens as soon as possible. Pray wisdom for the government that they can find consistency in their thinking and planning for schools, and patience and energy for teachers and headteachers trying to find solutions to the practical challenges returning presents. Pray for parents homeschooling especially those juggling it with full time working (believe me that is a challenge for the kids AND the parents!!).

But most of all let’s be praying for our kids and teens in all of this. People ask me all the time - do I think this will have a catastrophic impact on children and young people? Do I think, as one recent media report boldly stated recently, that they are ‘the lost generation’? The honest answer is that children are incredibly resilient. And teens, for all their challenges, are very up for change - after all everything is changing for them anyway! So the majority will probably manage this well. I think of it a bit like when you look at a cliff face and can see the lines in the rock that indicate significant moments that occurred as the layers of material were laid down. Most kids will have markers in their journey from this covid19 season. And it will inevitably shape their perceptions of life, the world, family, friendship, and many other things. But most with good support and safe spaces to process all of that will do just fine. The concern most of all is for those who are vulnerable, who do not have that security, or who hit challenges emotionally and need extra support. 

So if you are a parent, grandparent, godparent, aunt, uncle, or friend to a child or young person still out of school what can you do to support them and minimise the impact on their wellbeing? 

There is so much here we can't change - but here are 5 things you CAN do that will make a difference:

(1) Help them create and maintain a good routine

One of the most damaging things about losing school is the loss of daily productivity and routine. Many teenagers in particular struggle with this because the part of their brain involved in motivation is developing in this season anyway so it's tough to get themselves moving even at the best of times. They may feel they have little or nothing to get up for. Teenagers also, due to the changes in hormone levels including melatonin, feel a natural draw to a changed daily schedule, instinctively wanting to stay up late and then sleep in late. In lockdown without school to get up for, and with the draw of gaming and NetFlix, many are staying up very late and sleeping most of the day! The risk here is that they lose touch with the world around them, living most of their hours when the rest of the world is asleep and adding to feelings of disconnection and isolation.

You can help them by giving them reasons to get up and bringing back routine where possible. If you live with them, help them think about how to motivate themselves, setting alarm clocks, or planning a schedule or timetable where you can. If you don’t live with them you might actually be in a better position to help by becoming an outside influence to bring in things worth getting up for: think about whether you can do a regular call, or meet them for a walk, or add some interest to their week.

Don’t forget too the import once of sleep routine - many teens just like adults are struggling with sleep in this season. For tips on how to sleep better check out this article from our recent sleep week at MASF.

(2) Create opportunities for social contact and play

Remember the most significant loss from missing school is not academic for many children: it is the loss of contact with their peers, and the chance for that central part of childhood: play. It's easy to get bogged down with worries about the academic work kids are missing out on but actually experts agree that play and social contact are actually a lot more important for younger children in particular.  It’s not easy to find ways to enable this but now we are moving out of the strictest season of lockdown it is possible for most people with a bit of creativity. If you are able to (not in a shielding household), think about playdates: one child can play in a garden with another if they are able to stay 2m apart - think about distanced games that work: kicking a ball between children (washing hands or using gel if they’ve been handling the ball), running races 2m apart, hide and seek, bat n ball games, battleship, guess who, card games … 

Teenagers may be more able to connect online (and often know more ways to do that than we do as parents!) but remember the less verbal teens may not find this coming naturally. Think about ways you can support this and things they can do online rather than ‘just’ chatting (I remember our son’s horror at my suggestion he ‘just chatted’ with one of his friends online the first time we tried it!) - quizzes, challenges, online escape rooms - whatever works! 

If you are not able to meet up with other kids in person or arrange this, you may need to think more creatively but that doesn’t mean that your children can’t socialise - do arrange online meet-ups for them, with their peers and with other adults. In fact here their adult mates will become worth their weight in gold, so where possible arrange regular catch-ups that add more variety to the conversations they are having each week. And again be creative: investigate games you can play over zoom/facetime, think about reading together or set them puzzles, challenges, or scavenger hunts they can do whilst chatting. But remember it doesn’t have to be for hours: younger children, in particular, are likely to struggle with paying attention for long calls much more than they might in real-life conversations so don’t feel downhearted if they lose interest and wander off - this is about richness in who is in their day to day life and even short connections make a difference particular if they are made regularly. 

(3) Watch out for online gaming

The online world is always a challenge for parents in ANY season, but in lockdown, this became particularly hard. So this is a huge topic which I won’t do justice here … plus as the parent of an enthusiastic 8-year-old gamer, this is one I live with the tensions of every day! After all, how enticing does that online world become when the real world seems to have stopped? Many older children and teens have found the online world the only space they can meet mates and hang out - and those with little else to entertain them can easily be spending hours each day (and night!) on there.

Parenting around this topic is always tricky and down to individual preference. The main thing is about balance and boundaries: you want the real world to be more real than the one online. So where possible boost the real world by encouraging contact and ‘real’ conversations with friends, and in the meantime place good boundaries around online use. Most of all have good conversations about safety and how to get the best out of online gaming and create safe spaces they can bring and concerns or worries they have.

If you want to read more about this topic in the COVID19 season the government produced a paper with lots of useful links:

ThinkUKnow is also a great website and has activity packs to download specifically related to covid. 

(4) Encourage physical activity and getting out where possible

One good way to get kids off gaming is to get them out of doors - and this also balances another big concern in lockdown season as kids see massive changes to their activity levels. Again the parent in me feels this particularly having watched my 8-year-old, who rarely stopped moving pre lockdown, gradually becoming more and more stationary and lethargic, eventually resorting to daily Joe Wickes in an attempt to get his energy levels back up! 

The thing is that once we start to move less we feel less like moving so it can so easily become a gradual cycle. Break it by getting out if you are able to - and enjoy the greater freedom we now have to exercise and get into the great outdoors. 

If your family is still not able to then once again this is going to take some creativity. But there are some amazing resources online (aside from Joe Wickes we’ve done family pilates run by a local teacher, my daughter accesses several dance classes online (interesting going on alongside me trying to cook dinner in the evenings!) and even my son's fencing group have run some classes online! Or think outside the box: dig up your old dance mat, find a length of rope, and do some skipping challenges, learn to juggle - anything to get up and moving! And if you can’t go out, do what you can to expose yourself and your family to daylight, sunlight (if we’re lucky!) and fresh air - and if you can, to get somewhere every day you can see the sky - this will really help with energy levels, and also help you sleep. 

(5) Create spaces to share difficult feelings

This may be the most uncomfortable one, but it is also one of the most important. We’ve heard a lot in lockdown about positivity and the importance of things like gratitude - and these are good healthy emotional rhythms to practice with your children: thinking about three good things at the end of each day, remembering those worse off than us, reaching out to do acts of kindness for other people - all these are very good things. But emotional wellbeing isn’t about denying the existence of difficult feelings - and there are plenty of those around now.

As parents, we can be afraid ourselves of admitting those feelings, or talking to our children about them - particularly fears and anxieties - because we don’t want to somehow encourage or make them worse. But children need safe spaces they can admit what they are feeling, and younger children may not even know how to articulate or understand what it is they ARE feeling. This is a healthy need to express and process - and without it, feelings often come out elsewhere for children: particularly in bad behaviour, nightmares, or even physical symptoms like tummy aches. 

So let your children talk, research things together if you need to find out more, and make use of the many excellent resources there are around in particular in this season to talk about coronavirus. And if they are struggling don’t be afraid to ask for help: school will be a good place to start as schools have good links and expertise here and will be only too happy to provide additional advice and support, or you can talk to your GP.

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