Supporting your children return to school during COVID-19

Tips for protecting their mental health — and your own

UNICEF ROSA
children in school maldives
Ministry of Education, Maldives
26 August 2020

As some schools in South Asia start to reopen, children are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions. The return to school will be welcome and exciting for many students, but others will be feeling anxious or frightened. 

Here’s what you can do to support your children with the complicated emotions they may be experiencing and ease them into the new normal at school.  

 

My child is worried about getting sick at school and doesn’t want to go back. What can I do? 

Starting school or starting a new school year can be stressful at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Children may feel nervous or reluctant to return to school, especially if they have been learning at home for months.  

Have an open conversation with your child about what’s worrying them and let them know that it’s completely normal to feel anxious. 

Talk to them calmly about some of the changes they may expect at school, such as needing to wear masks and keep a distance from their friends and teachers. Reassure them that these safety measures are in place to keep students and teachers healthy. You can also highlight the important role they can play in keeping themselves healthy, such as washing their hands with soap and water. 

Remind children about the positives — they will be able to see their friends and teachers and continue learning new things. 

 

Is there anything I should look out for as my child starts back at school? 

The coronavirus outbreak has caused major disruptions to daily life — and children are feeling these changes deeply. As your child returns to school you should keep an eye on their physical health, learning, emotions and behaviour. 

Look out for these signs of stress and anxiety to gauge if your child needs extra support from you: 

  • Sadness 
  • Worry  
  • Anger  
  • Agitation 
  • Fatigue 
  • Confusion 
  • Lack of interest in playing with other children or completing their homework 
  • Not sleeping or eating well 
  • Loss of interest in their hobbies or friends 

Before children go back, remind them it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times. Encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling and let them know you are always there to listen. 

There have also been concerns that bullying may increase when children return to school, due to some of the misinformation around COVID-19.  

You should explain that the virus has nothing to do with what someone looks like, where they are from or what language they speak. Remind your children that everyone deserves to be safe at school. Bullying is always wrong and we should each do our part to spread kindness and support each other. If they are called names or bullied at school, they should tell a trusted adult.  

children handwashing
UNICEF/Amila Gamage
My child’s school is recommending children wear protective clothing, which is making them feel more nervous. What should I say to them? 

Approach this conversation with empathy. Tell your child that you know they are feeling anxious about coronavirus, but that it’s healthy to talk about our worries and emotions. Children may also get upset or frustrated if they are finding it hard to wear masks, especially when running or playing.  

You can reassure your children that lots of adults are working hard to keep your family safe, but emphasize that it's important we all follow the recommended measures to take care of more vulnerable members of our community.   

 

How can I encourage my child to follow precautions (such as frequent handwashing, physical distancing, etc.) at school without alarming them? 

One of the best ways to keep safe from COVID-19 and other diseases is to simply encourage regular handwashing with soap. At school children will see new handwashing stations and signs near their classrooms. They should wash their hand regularly and remind their friends to do the same. 

It doesn't need to be a scary conversation. Sing along with their favourite song or do a dance together to make learning fun. 

You can also show children how to cover a cough or a sneeze with their elbow, and ask them to tell you if they start to feel like they have a fever, cough or are having difficulty breathing. 

 

My child’s behaviour has changed since they stopped going to school. They've become withdrawn and won’t talk to me. I’m really worried about them returning to school. Is there anyone who can help? 

The pandemic, lockdown and school closures have left many children and young people feeling lonely, isolated and stressed — especially teenagers.  

If your child is not open to talking to you, this doesn’t make you a bad parent.  

The following child helplines are available across South Asia. Most helplines are open 24 hours a day and children can call and talk to someone about how they’re feeling. 

The numbers to call in each country are available here and are also provided below:

  • Afghanistan 📞 707 199 199 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • Bangladesh 📞 1098 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • Bhutan 📞 1098 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • India 📞 1098 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • Maldives 📞 1412 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • Nepal 📞 1098 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
  • Pakistan 📞
    • Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — 1121 — (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)
    • Balochistan — 081 111 666 775 — (Open 9am - 5pm. Calls are not free at the moment, but authorities are trying to change this.)
    • Sindh — 1121 — (Open 24 hours. Calls are not free at the moment, but authorities are trying to change this.)
  • Sri Lanka 📞 1920 (Open 24 hours. Calls are free.)

 

My child’s sleep patterns have changed during lockdown and I’m worried about how they’ll cope when they go back to school. How can I support them? 

Children’s sleep habits, and quality of sleep, might have changed during lockdown. This might make getting back into a school routine difficult. 

Get your child back into a routine of waking up before they return to school. Move the time that you wake your child up earlier over a number of days, to help them adjust. 

Don’t let them nap during the day. Avoid screen time when they wake up and at least an hour before they go to bed. Develop a routine and stick to it. 

The day before they go back to school, try to have a calm evening, with plenty of time for settling and preparation. 

children in mask
UNICEF/Amila Gamage
How can I gently check in to see how my child is coping? 

Be proactive in your conversations with children. Some children may come to their parents wanting to talk. But others will need their parents to create the space for discussion. 

Check in with children and ask how they’re doing. You can also create opportunities for your child to express themselves through activities like playing and drawing. This can help them communicate any negative feelings they may be experiencing in a safe and supportive environment.  

It’s likely children’s emotions will change regularly and you need to show them that’s okay. Listen to their concerns, speak kindly and reassure them. Children often take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives. So manage your own emotions and remain calm and open. 

 

My child has struggled to study from home and is worried about being very far behind their classmates. How can I help and reassure them? 

Many children have struggled to continue learning during lockdown. As they return to school, they may be fearful about facing this, especially in comparison to other children. 

During this time it’s important that parents prioritize their children’s wellbeing and adjustment to the new normal over their learning outcomes. When children feel loved and supported they’re going to learn better.  

You can also talk to your child’s teacher about the support systems they have in place to help children who have fallen behind during lockdown. 

 

My child is worried about being bullied at school. What can I do? 

If your child is worried about bullying either in person or online, it’s important to let them know that they are not alone and they can always talk to you or another trusted adult. The more you talk to your children about bullying, the more comfortable they will be telling you if they see or experience it. 

Check in with your children daily and ask about their time at school and their activities online, and also about their feelings. Some children may not express their emotions verbally, so you should also look out for any anxious or aggressive behaviour that may indicate something is wrong. 

You should also talk to your children about staying safe online. Have an honest discussion about who they communicate with and how. Make sure they understand the value of being kind and thinking carefully about their online postings. Encourage them to tell you or a trusted adult immediately if they experience any mean or negative contact online. 

If you notice your child becoming withdrawn or upset, or using their device more or less than usual, it could be a sign that they are being bullied online. 

Read more about talking to your child about bullying. 

 

I'm anxious about being away from my child when they go back to school. What can I do to calm down? 

The last few months may have been very stressful for you and your family. You might be dealing with your own grief and loss or worried about financial issues and your own fears of COVID-19.  

Parents have also gotten used to having their children around them all the time during lockdown. And the thought of being separated from them as they return to school may be causing them additional stress and pressure.  

Children are very sensitive to the emotions of their parents, so it’s important that you take care of your own mental health, as well as theirs. 

Here are some tips for managing your stress. 

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Follow a proper diet, get enough sleep, and exercise.  
  • Keep connected with your loved ones and make time for activities that you enjoy (especially during the hours that your child is at school). 
  • Talk to people you trust, including your friends and family. And if you can, talk to them every day. 
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or take other drugs to deal with your emotions. 
  • Get the facts about COVID-19. Gather information that will help you take reasonable precautions. Find a credible source of information you can trust such as a local or state public health agency, WHO, UN agencies. 
  • Draw on skills that you have successfully used in the past to manage life adversities and use them to help you manage this challenging time 
  • Know where you can get help for physical and mental health support if needed.  

 

UNICEF is working with governments to help support them in making these decisions. We teamed up with the World Health Organization, UNESCO and the World Bank to publish new guidelines on the reopening of schools, which are available here in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese. These guidelines set out the questions that should be asked, and the steps that should be taken before, during and after schools reopen, to protect the safety of students, teachers and other staff, and families.