An open letter to Secondary Students, from Author, Teacher and Speaker, Sharon Witt, who has written on StartingSecondary School, on my blog before.
This letter is addressed to students in Melbourne, Victoria. However, so much of this is true for Secondary Students and Final Year students anywhere in Australia this term.
What a year they have come through. We are so proud of them!
“Dear Secondary Student,
This week is the time you have been anticipating for many months – returning to school after what seems like forever.
It has been a long road. You have been patiently waiting for your turn to head back to campus, always in the back of your mind that a further announcement at any minute could spell the completion of your schooling this year from home.
You have missed so much. Within a very short time, many of the things that brought you joy – your sporting practice, footy matches, Drama group, shopping, going to see a movie, hanging out with friends and mates at the park- all of your social activities, could no longer occur as our state battled to control an invisible enemy known as Covid19.
As you wake today, dust off that schoolbag and clean out your lunchbox (is that a mouldy sandwich you just found?!). You may be feeling anxious or really excited to be amongst your peers in real life today (as opposed to small faces on a screen for months on end.)
I know that for many, you are feeling like being in ‘remote learning’ during a world-wide pandemic has made you fall behind in your learning. You wonder if you’ve fallen so behind in your work as it seems everyone else has been navigating online learning quite easily. You fear that you have learnt so little in the past 6 months.
But what if I asked you to reframe this experience?
What if I reassured you that you have, in fact, learnt a great deal more during this unprecedented time off ‘more formalized, on campus learning’?
You see, learning doesn’t just take place within the fences of a school campus; the four walls of a classroom. What if I assured you, that you have in fact, learnt a great deal more in these past 6 months than you may have otherwise, and you may be, in fact have become a better equipped, young person, who has learnt so much more than you could possibly realise.
You have learnt a great deal of resilience over the past 6 months.
That there will be situations and events in life that can catch us off guard at any time, that we were not prepared for, and we have to learn to adapt, use the resources around us (family, friends, teachers) and those within us, to manage and cope.
You may have learnt about the use of online technology in learning in a way you haven’t had to use before. Your teachers have certainly had to adjust very quickly, and many of you helped some of your exasperated teachers work out how to ‘share their screen’ or ‘access the chat option’ in the initial weeks. Be assured, your teachers have had to learn on the run too!
You may not have understood all the math concepts during remote learning, but you have learnt a lot more about yourself. You learn more effectively in the afternoon, rather than the mornings. You have learnt that you need to put specific goals in place to be motivated to complete on-line assessments.
You may have learnt that you enjoy more time on your own, to read, write, create, learn an instrument. Maybe you learnt how to cook, write songs, build, plant, and dream.
You have learnt that you really thrive best around people. You have had to learn different ways of meeting your needs of connection with others- whether that be facetiming your friends, playing online games together from the comfort of your own homes, writing actual letters and cards to your grandparents and posting them.
You have learnt perhaps, even more-so the value of family. Of creating new traditions, like walking or riding as a family, movie nights with pizza, discovering a new competitiveness when playing family board games, the joy of caring for and looking out for neighbours or those most vulnerable within your community.
You have most definitely learned more about epidemiology (even if you don’t know how to spell the word!)- how a seemingly simple virus can threaten not only our health, but affect your community and country in ways that we will continue to see for perhaps decades.
You have learnt how state versus federal politics work. How a state leader relies on other professionals to make important daily decisions that then affect our everyday lives.
So, as you head into school this week, may you reframe the significance of today.
You have not fallen behind – you are exactly where you are meant to be. In fact, you are much stronger, wiser and resilient that you may have realised.
And remember this – your teachers are nervous too. It has been a long six months for them as they have navigated remote teaching whilst also perhaps caring for their much older parents, other vulnerable relatives, young children, helping their own kids at home learning whilst doing their very best to manage their classes for you. They too have had to learn to put their own coping mechanisms in place when they can no longer go out, visit friends, travel for school holidays, and make plans.
As you enter those school gates this week – whether you are feeling anxious, nervous or just plain excited- remember to use grace. Everyone is in the same boat. You have all experienced a (hopefully) once in a lifetime event.
You will learn from this and have grown through this.
Look out for those that may seem anxious today – those who may have forgotten how difficult it was to socialise with others. Those that actually might have preferred to stay at home to continue their formal learning because the classroom noise and activity can be so overwhelming for them.
Have patience for your peers, and your teachers. They may need a few extra coffees to get used to managing the extra noise and energy in the classroom again. There is no ‘mute’ button anymore. Your teachers are beyond excited to welcome you back to school. They too have learnt so much over these many months of lockdown.
Enjoy being back at school. This term will be over quicker than you know it.
And from your parents and teachers – we think you are amazing!”
Sharon Witt is a secondary educator of over 28 years and author of 12 books for children and teens including ‘Surviving High School’ (for children) and ‘Starting Secondary School’ (for parents), which is co-authored with Dr Michael-Carr-Gregg. You can find out more at www.sharonwitt.com.au
In the last few weeks our kids heard that they will be losing more lasts. They’re really struggling with the news. It is absolutely vital that we find new ways to help them celebrate this last milestone year. Our Year 12s need creative Rites of Passage.
We know that Victoria announced further lockdowns this term. Some students took Lockdown 2.0 in their stride, while others found it more challenging than the first time.
NSW students heard that all graduations, inter-school sport, excursions, camps and formals had been cancelled for the rest of term 3. Some students heard this news just as they were about to sit their trial exams.
Then (what we all suspected would be next), Queensland confirmed there would be no schoolies celebrations this year.
What YOU Told Me About Your Year 12s
I reached out on my Facebook page, over a week ago, and asked you to email me:
How your year 12 child (or student/s) is handling the announcements about changes.
What has been cancelled completely.
What your school is doing, to still help Year 12s celebrate and experience the end of school Rite of Passage (i.e. How have they been creative in coming up with different but great alternatives?).
I was flooded with emails, inbox messages and even phone calls from people I had never met. I heard about a lot of pain in families right now.
Parents stories describe lots and lots of tears. Sadness at losses and, for some, fear and a perceived loss of hope about the future. One student told their parent, “There is nothing to look forward to, nothing.” Some said their children are handling things ok.
A common thread is the frustration of NSW parents and schools, at the perceived inconsistency between social distancing rules for school events, compared to what is allowed on public transport, in restaurants, food courts and sports clubs. Especially those in regional areas.
Tony George, the principal of The King’s School in Sydney, drew attention to the nonsensical and confusing rules between club, public and private school sport (Inter-school sport was then permitted to go ahead last week). Another principal felt that school leadership haven’t been trusted to go ahead with well planned, closely monitored and socially distanced (outdoor) graduations. Yet, restaurants, pubs and cafe’s could still host patrons from anywhere around the city. A NSW mother even began a petition, calling out some of theses irregularities.
Your children’s specific losses include:
Year 12 parent/child breakfasts
Year 12 family chapel service
Year 12 Mothers’ Lunch
Old Boys hosted lunch for Year 12s
Inter-school sport competitions
Last inter-state school competitions
Inter-school art and drama events
Last school excursions
Being the Seniors in the school and not being able to enjoy the associated privileges because schools are closed
Year 12 common rooms or Year 12 areas closed (because they can’t appropriately socially distance and they’re not allowed to share cutlery/microwave etc)
Year 12 camp
Duke of Edinburgh hike postponed
Final fun week activities
Staff vs Year 12 sports matches
Year 12 beach day
Year 12 ‘Muck Up’ day
Last whole school assembly, run by Year 12s
Year group photos
University Open Days (onsite)
18th birthday parties
End of term offsite picnic
Overseas/interstate gap year
Casual work and apprenticeship unknowns
Why Rites of Passage Matter
In Sydney alone, there have been a number of reports of suicide tragedies in senior students this year. In August, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) data for Victoria recorded a 33 per cent rise in children presenting to hospital with self-harm injuries, compared to the same time last year.
Please hear me – I am not implying that the loss of Year 12 rites of passage alone has lead to such tragedies! But when young people are struggling (already having experienced bush fires or floods, personal or parental job losses, illness, death of loved ones and/or mental health challenges) for some, this loss of ‘lasts’ can add to their sense of hopelessness. Year 12 student Carla Tomaras told the ABC that a rise in mental health issues among young people was not surprising to her.
So, it is not ok to say to our Year 12s, “Oh come on, it’s not THAT big in the greater scheme of things.” or, “Oh well, at least it’s not a war.” I’ve written before how unkind these statements are, but we also have no idea what some of these young people are quietly carrying.
But, Doesn’t Hardship Build Resilience?
Yes, learning to overcome difficulty can build resilience. But resilience doesn’t develop out of the hardship itself. Resilience is built through a number of supporting factors which surround the person going through the hardship. Most significantly – relationships. Through trusting, supportive adult-child relationships. Parents, teachers, school counsellors and school leadership – that’s us!
“The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
No we can’t change COVID-19, but brushing off pain, belittling and ridiculing doesn’t build resilience, let alone connection. Rather, acknowledging, listening and finding healthy alternative pathways does. It’s in the safe spaces we create, that emotions should be allowed to surface and be heard. Places where young people can be vulnerable, yet completely and unconditionally accepted. Without these factors, the build up of hardships can be crushing instead of building.
So the question is, “How are we communicating support and care to our Year 12s, in the things that matter to them at the moment?”
Your and My Role
Perhaps the Year 12s in our homes or classrooms simply need us to acknowledge that there have been many losses this year? That there are so many unknowns. That mask wearing everywhere can be unsettling and anxiety provoking for some. That fears or anxiety about the unknown and concerns about loss of job prospects, are normal responses. That some have felt (and still feel) lonely. Others continue to be worried about vulnerable family members. That missing out on the social events really sucks.
Perhaps all we need to do is lean in right now? Lean in and show empathy. And then get a little creative with some Rites of Passage events.
Rites of Passage are Good for Us
When you are at school, everything builds up to the final year. Some major Rites of Passage events happen then. Essentially, it is normal for teenagers to look forward to these events as markers of maturity and gaining even more independence.
Cristine Legare, a researcher and psychology professor at the University of Texas, explains (here and here) that,
“Rituals are universal practices of human culture… (they) have social, psychological and instrumental functions… Rituals signify transition points in the individual life span and provide psychologically meaningful ways to participate in the beliefs and practices of the community….
Initiation rites are commonly found across cultures as a coming of age ritual to mark the time when adolescents enter adulthood”
So, our Years 12s need creative Rites of Passage this year.
What Schools Can Do
Parents responses to me were quite mixed, in terms of schools Connection, Communication and Care during Covid-19 announcements.
Some schools have been completely on the ball and had a response drafted and sent out to families, by the time students arrived home after a government announcement (about closures, exams, formals, graduations and so on.) What broke my heart was reading that it took a week for some parents to hear anything from their child’s school (following media reports), and some who still (up to last Friday) haven’t heard a word about alternative celebrations from their school’s leadership.
I’ve worked in schools a long time and I know, without a doubt, that principals and teachers care for their students! That’s what they’re in the business of doing. They’re really doing their utmost to keep students safe. But if I might remind schools, your students and parents don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes if you don’t tell them. These issues for our Year 12s are not something to be silent on.
(Note to Parents: If you haven’t heard from your child’s school – ask.)
If, as a school, you are still trying to work out the details – perhaps say that? Let the parents and students know you are thinking of them and thinking of alternatives. But please don’t say nothing at all.
We need to keep in mind that:
no news raises anxiety and stress levels
these social events are a big part of maintaining wellbeing in this year group
schools need to keep communicating with parents and students on a regular basis
kind communication demonstrates care
Help Students Own Their Events
Perhaps schools could ask the students for their ideas? After all, they’re mostly legal adults this year. Show them that their opinions matter to you. Give your Year 12s the opportunity to brainstorm and participate in setting up their own ‘lasts.’ Not just the school prefects, but everyone that would like to be involved.
Some students will relish the chance to own these events for themselves. Or at least have a voice in the planning and executing of them. Of course you will get some outrageous ideas, but young people are amazing and creative when given the chance. This might be the most creative year yet!
The Creative Rites For Year 12s – That YOU Told Me About
Keepsakes and Treasures
One thing we can still do is produce keepsakes. e.g. Year 12 Jerseys (thankfully handed out at the start of the year) and year books, special signed photos and other souvenirs.
Photos: Although the more formal year group photos might have been cancelled, there is still an opportunity to take informal class or group photos. Someone suggested creative socially distanced photos (with masks on, spread out on the oval or waving from the banisters.)
Unique 2020 keepsakes: Kate Rayment, the principal of St Scholastica’s College in Glebe, told the SMH that she wanted to acknowledge the year like no other. She wanted the girls to remember it with pride and turned around, into something they can be proud of. Something that says, “We survived this.” So Kate has, “…given each year 12 student a commemorative badge, featuring the school’s crest encircled by symbols of the COVID age – hand-washing, social distancing, lockdown and sanitiser.”
Certificates: The Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta has also reported their plan to present a special certificate to every student in the Class of 2020, to acknowledge their resilience.
Journals: My colleague Sharon Witt has recently created Year 12 ISO Journals (Covering; gratitude, goals, kindness, connection, emotions and more). These can be purchased in boxes of 40. Wouldn’t this be an amazing keepsake gift for each Year 12 at your school?
Creative Event Alternatives for Year 12s
I love the ideas that I was sent by you!
I had many reports of formals and graduation dinners being postponed to late term 4, after finals and in hope that lockdowns will have eased somewhat. With many hoping that at least the year 12 student body and their teachers might attend (even if parents can’t attend the valedictory dinner).
Graduation assemblies are only a few weeks away and it is these that have students and parents anxious right now. However, at this stage, I am thrilled to hear that many schools are determined to honour the Year 12s in both formal and fun ways.
One Director of Pastoral Care is working closely with a parent committee of a Year 12 boys’ school and told me that they are still planning some extra activities for their final days of school. Another public school has year 12 teachers and the principal involved in organising events.
Some are having year 12s graduate via Zoom/video link, with parents connecting offsite and the rest of the school from other classrooms
One or two schools are considering holding back the formal graduation assembly, to one morning during the first week of term 4. (In Victoria and NSW there is approximately one week before final exams begin in term 4.)
Socially distanced outdoor graduation assemblies – should restrictions ease/change
A few schools have offered to film the graduation and then provide a copy to each family as a keepsake
Some will ensure there is a good photo taken of each student
A Sydney public school and a private school reported plans to hold a modified ‘walk of fame’. Year 12s will walk along corridors, past classrooms, throughout the whole school, while students cheer and celebrate loudly. (One of my favourite Education journalists, Jordan Baker, wrote about her walk along ‘The Yellow Brick Road’)
Some schools have plans to have music playing, with balloons and decorations on classroom doors and corridors, to celebrate the year 12s graduation day
Fun last week events:
A final Year 12 fun assembly zoomed in to all other classes
One group of students are putting together a Year 12 video, including student and staff interviews, footage of the students over the years and possibly some fun skits
A socially distanced colour run, on the oval, for Year 12s only
An early BBQ dinner in their final week – where students can come together on the school premises
Year 12 volleyball/soccer games on the oval
A special Year 12 Chapel service
Socially distanced picnics on the oval – BYO food
A last day Year 12 breakfast
‘Kiss and Ride’ pick up – where parents drive up to the school gate, with cars decorated with balloons and streamers. There will be a loud speaker and students announced as parents pull up
Students photographed climbing into the car, with parents hanging out of the windows at final day pick up
Parents taking students out to tea, lunch or dinner to celebrate the end of school
Small ‘pods’ of students getting together at a local restaurant or for beach walks to celebrate among themselves.
A word on Schoolies week:
Love it or hate, for many students ‘Schoolies’ represents a time to relax and unwind after a long year. When it goes well (and it often can), young people get to book a place, shop for food, cook and clean for themselves, and enjoy a holiday with good friends. All before more adult responsibilities begin the following year. This year might look different, but if a week away camping, glamping or flatting is something your young adult child is considering, perhaps you could help them find ways to support local tourism and do a laid back week away this year?
Rites of Passage are really about building memories, signifying milestones and progression to new phases of our lives. 2020 is a year that will never be forgotten.
These memories, their unique send off, their passage into the adult world, however crazy, will be part of this group’s unique end of schooling.
There is still so much potential to make joyful, meaningful and Hope-filled memories in the next few weeks. Let’s send every class of 2020 off with a sense of exuberant triumph!
It’s been a strange year for all students, but none more so than those in their final year of school.
My daughter is my second child, so I have been here before. By ‘here’ I mean the last year of school. Yet, this time looks nothing like my son’s final year. This year is supposed to be the year of ‘lasts’! And this Final Class of 2020 need us right now.
When you are at school everything builds up to the final year. Some major Rites of Passage events happen then. It is normal for teenagers to look forward to more independence. Yet March 2020 saw this cancelled – almost overnight.
My daughter is a Sports Captain this year, and final running carnivals, weekly house games, all the dress up fun and responsibility that comes with these… evaporated. Her peer group saw sudden cancellations of 18th birthday parties, state sporting events, driving permit tests, driving lessons, year group assemblies, school fairs, group music nights, group recitals, fundraisers, uni open days, excursions, school trips, movies… Many of these still have no set start date. Many will simply not happen at all.
Study stress has been an issue for young people for a number of years already.
Add to this; the 2020 interruption to their education, the thoughts of a shaky job market, the improbability of a travelling gap year, and the uncertainty over trades and university entries for 2021.
In May, Unicef Australia asked children and teens what they are feeling during this pandemic. Their ‘Living in Limbo’ report found,
There is global concern for youth mental health going forward.
Given all of this – What do the Final Class of 2020 Need from Us Right Now?
The return to school has not been a one-size-fits all happy reunion!
Having worked as a school counsellor for many years, I predicted a number of scenarios for how some Year 12s would feel, on return to the school campus. Do you recognise any of these in your child or your students?
Hated the lockdown, loves being back at school and seeing their peers.
Did quite well without all the social interaction and got on with online learning – a little bit sad to return.
Anxiety about the unknown of a second wave of COVID, or an outbreak in their school.
Worried – “Now that we are back, the academic pressure is going to hit again…”
Poor Wi Fi access during lockdown and concerns about the equity of Year 12.
Struggling with anxiety because they need to catch up the work they missed while schooling was online.
Anxiety about how to “pick up where I left off.”
Frustration at the generally poor communication by Education Departments.
Glad to be away from some unrealistic parental pressure that happened during lockdown.
Returning with added trauma, after being ‘locked in’ with other major issues. E.g. an abusive parent.
Fears that their dreams of getting into medicine or high scoring courses, have slipped away.
Caring For the Class of 2020 (who are stressed & feel as though their wings have been clipped)
Something that will stand out for this year group will be how the adults (parents, teachers, counsellors, principals) supported them through this. Because the presence and interaction of significant adults is a huge factor in developing resilience.
1 – How to Listen to What They’re Feeling
Offer kindness and compassion
The final year of school can be emotionally exhausting at the best of times. When teenagers are struggling emotionally, they can tend to either withdraw or lash out. Even more so if they feel there are no safe adults who will listen to them.
When it comes to navigating uncomfortable feelings, ‘the only way out is through’, and offering our teenagers compassion, paves their way toward finding hope.
Don’t say things like: “Well at least we’re not in a war.” – This is unfair and can be hard to grasp when emotions are high already.
“This has prepared you for independent learning after school.” – Wrong. This looks nothing like ‘independent learning’. As a tertiary education lecturer, I can tell you that this is nothing like independent learning (unless you have signed up for an online distance course). My own uni students are struggling. The university of Melbourne’s survey highlights the ‘anxiety and precarity’ of learning, for university students, during a pandemic.
Listening encourages Mindfulness
Mindfulness techniques can be very helpful when young people’s routines are disrupted, and they feel overwhelmed by frustration and disappointment. Mindfulness teaches us to tune into our emotions in any given moment and experience them without judgment.
Joanna Stern, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, explains, “You tell yourself it’s okay to feel anxious right now. It’s okay to feel scared. It’s okay to feel angry. You’re accepting the feelings you have and validating them because we’re all having those feelings. It’s really important that you accept them as they are rather than fighting them.”
Essentially a young person says to themselves, “I hate this. It really sucks and I feel so angry that… I can’t be with my friends at the sporting events this term /…my last year has been interrupted / my (insert your own here)… So now what needs to be done?”
Acknowledge what they have lost
Validate your child’s disappointments and emotions. Allow them to vent and work through their feelings out loud. They often don’t want a solution. They just want their feelings to be acknowledged.
You can do this by naming your child’s emotion. E.g. “You sound really frustrated about…”
2 – Be their Cheer Squad
Communicate unconditional love and acceptance.
NOTICE what your child is doing well with and TELL them what you see, every day. SAY out loud what you are proud of about their character, when they show initiative, when they help out, or when they work hard at something.
Encourage times of rest, relaxation and fun.
Offer Hope for the Future
Though we can’t replace what’s been lost, adults should not underestimate the power of offering hope.
3 – Look for the Many Pathways to Uni Study
If students are worried about their final results or ATAR, remind them that there are many pathways to university study. Jump on to university websites and upcoming virtual open days to look at the options. Remind your child that in Austraila, approximately only ¼ of students get into university via their ATAR.
4 – Highlight that University is only ONE option
Remind your child that university isn’t the only option. Help them to consider the many career paths that don’t require a degree. Research trade options, in areas your child might be interested in. The world is short of tradies, in many fields right now!
5 – Help Them Dream
Parents and mentors have a powerful role to play in helping young people to see the positive in life. Help your children to dream about their future, and the things they would love to do in the next year or two.
In therapy, we sometimes help young people create a vision board or a vision journal. A place where they can visually dream about realistic ideals for what their upcoming year/s might look like.
Don’t squash ideas of travel.
Let them wonder, “If the travel bans are lifted internationally, where would I travel to?, “Would I take a gap year.” “Would I travel around Australia with some of my friends?”
We must give our children hope and we must allow them to dream, and let them know this won’t last forever. Their adult adventure is just beginning, and there’s still so much to be excited about and so much to enjoy.
What schools can do:
Information Will Help With the Uncertainty
The school community need to do everything they can to help the Class of 2020 feel supported and informed. Knowledge takes away some of the unknown. Knowing schedules and so on can give students a little bit of a sense of control, in what’s still largely not in their control at the moment. Information helps reduce anxiety.
There’s a public school in Sydney that has just been brilliant at sending Year 12 students (and their parents) updates on; Education Department announcements, schedules, encouragements, wellbeing, uni, TAFE and other general information, a few times a week since ‘this’ all started.
The Director of Wellbeing at my daughter’s school, has begun sending out Weekly Wellbeing emails to the Year 12 group (*waves to Lauren!*).
Plan some fun
Some schools are planning additional fun and social events exclusively for year 12s – colour runs, morning teas, lunches, the odd extra special privilege, crazy sock/hair days… Things to create a release from the constant academic pressure. Activities to help students feel connected and leave with some unique Class of 2020 memories.
My last thought
As always, find the humour. My daughter and I had a chuckle at this tweet…
Someday our kids will have kids. Those kids will complain that they're bored and want to go somewhere.
So our kids will tell their kids about the time they couldn't leave their house for a month because of a pandemic.
This is our kids "2 mile walk in the snow uphill" moment.
The relaxing and lifting of restrictions in schools makes it sound like we’re on our way back to normal, yet ‘normal’ is a long way off. And our children know it.
If you chatted to a group of 6 teens and asked, “How did you find life in lockdown?”, you would likely get 6 different answers. Some kids thrived – more down time, more outdoor activity, more able to work independently, more family connection, less noise, less distraction, less COVID infection to worry about, less playground bullying.
Others struggled – less face-to-face connection, less part-time work, less sport, more distraction, more of a struggle to work independently, more exposure to family issues, more online bullying.
Equally, if you asked, “How are you feeling about the return to school?”, you would get 6 different answers. My tween was busting to get back to school. Others, not so much.
We need to be particularly aware of students who have anxiety or have struggled with school refusal in the past. These young people will be more anxious about returning to school in the coming weeks.
Returning to public transport or the school premises itself might be stressful, if young people are worried about contracting the virus. In this time, it could be the separation from the safety of home and their trusted adults that is at the core of school anxiety.
Begin by assuming they may be struggling and then proceed with gentleness and compassion.
A UNICEF survey of Australian high schoolers found that less than half say they are coping well. In April, boys (52%) were found to be coping slightly better than girls (38%), but it would be good to remember that boys often don’t tell us they are struggling. As someone on my Facebook page said – They show us.
UNICEF expects these figures to worsen by June. June is when most students are expected to be back in classrooms.
“Australia’s young people have been cut off from social support networks, must complete major education milestones online, and are also impacted by job losses, either themselves or their parents and carers. All of this is taking a toll on their mental health and their hope for the future.” UNICEF Australia
The response of schools and parents can make all the difference in maintaining our children’s mental wellbeing going forward. Having them get back to school is going to be really important, but their return needs to be managed sensitively.
Don’t worry about learning right now
Learning is easier when kids feel safe. Learning is difficult when your tween’s brain is emotionally overloaded and preoccupied with fears. If we work to create a sense of rest and peace, then the learning will eventually come.
Some anxiety is normal
It is normal for young people to have fears about the danger and threat of a virus. Remind your child that it is their brain’s way of encouraging them to do things that look after their own and others’ health (like maintaining good hygiene and an appropriate physical distance).
Some young people don’t have the words to let you know how they are feeling, so we have to be attuned to subtle changes. You know your child best and will know when your own tweens and teens deviate from their usual patterns.
Then, be on the look out for physical signs or behaviours that are out of the ordinary.
Signs your Child is Anxious about Returning to School
Stomach aches, headaches, saying they feel sick
Changes in appetite
Changes in sleep habits (sleeping more or less, struggling to fall asleep or wake up)
Avoiding or refusing to do things they would usually do (connect with others, chores, exercise etc.)
Withdrawal from friends or family
Seeking constant reassurance from a parent
Trying to get a parent to do something for them that they should be able to do themselves
Getting easily upset over seemingly small matters
Lashing out, easily angered or displaying more irritability
Becoming easily frustrated with things
Displaying avoidance of certain places – buses, areas at school or school itself (once school starts)
9 Ways to Support Kids who are Anxious about School
Many parents ask me how they can get their teen to open up and talk. The answer lies in your connection with them. Just enjoy being with your child, doing day-to-day tasks or a few fun activities. Sometimes side-by-side, without eye contact works well. Tune in when your teen begins to talk and express their thoughts.
Connection soothes stressed brains and provides a sense of a secure attachment, which is important for healthy emotional well-being.
Allow emotional expression. Emotional health requires emotional expression. It helps your child to have someone who will listen to them.
Remind your tween that you are safe for them to vent to. Their home is the safe space to express their feelings.
Give them enoughtime to express their feelings.
Acknowledge the frustration, fear or sadness they are experiencing – without giving answers.
Encourage your teen to name their emotion (as sometimes they don’t understand why they lashed out at the dog).
Make space for tears and frustration – Tears can be helpful in releasing stress or anxiety.
Limit worry time to a specific time of day where they can spend 10–15 minutes spilling out the worries, sadness or frustrations that their mind got stuck on during the day. (Talk, draw, journal or use a worry app or worry box to place written worries into.) When the time is up, the box/app/book gets closed and put away. This gives your child reassurance and validation that their thoughts matter, but also that they don’t have to listen to their brain’s fears all the time.
Use an Emotion Thermometer to help your tween communicate the level of their feelings.
Focus on courage. Help your teen to think about times they were courageous or dealt with their worry effectively. Ask, “How could you use any of those strategies again?” (Also see Thought Challenging)
4. Thought challenging
This involves challenging the, ‘what ifs’. For example, take a negative or unhelpful thought that triggers anxiety and flip it into a thought that is more helpful and builds courage. Such as, “What if I go to school and my friends have forgotten me?”, could flip to, “What if I go to school and have fun connecting with my friends again?”.
During ‘worry time’ ask how they might change worried thinking into more realistic thinking by asking, ‘What are the facts?’, ‘What could I do to cope with X when I get worried?”
5. In Conversation
Keep your voice calm. Think of it like taking your child through a fire drill. You need to communicate potentially alarming information in a factual, non-alarming, matter-of-fact way.
Don’t minimise their fears – Children mistrust us when we simply say, “Oh, everything is going to be okay”, because they know you can’t guarantee this. You could say, “My job is to look after you. What can I do to support/help you in this?”
Avoid excessive reassurance. Again, statements like, “Don’t worry” or “You will be okay” are unhelpful. Try asking questions that draw on the Emotional Support Ideas discussed above. Like, “Is there something you can do at school that will help you reach out for support?”
For anxious kids, talk through and then help them plan their own steps of getting back into the school routine.
Show support for the school and teachers in front of your child – express the positives in the changes their school has made. It is important that your tween trusts their teacher when they return. (If you are working through concerns with the school, direct your concerns to the appropriate adults there.)
Model how to deal with stressful situations in a calm manner.
Please seek mental health support if re-entry into school and life is making your child extremely anxious.
6. Small steps
Start with small steps. Perhaps focus on a plan for the first week’s routine – waking up, eating and going to bed at regular times. Online schooling has helped some with this already.
Some kids might need these strategies for a while, even once school starts.
Teach belly breathing at a time your child is calm. This is a relaxation response. When their fight-or-flight response kicks in, deep breathing helps dial it down.
Massage and safe touch also help calm our children.
Physical activity improves mental health.
Include lots of breaks and relaxing activities that foster a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment in your child. (Insist on less homework initially, as some children will need down time after school for a while).
8. Encourage Social engagement
Ease back into social activities for non-social and neurodiverse kids. Go slowly and don’t expect too much too soon. Talk to the school about reduced hours initially, as some children will need time to build up to being in noisy, visually stimulating and crowded rooms/playgrounds again.
9. Dream a little
Begin a vision board or a vision journal. Either as a family or with a teen who enjoys this type of activity. Otherwise let everyone have a chance to dream at the dinner table – about activities they would like to do and places they would like to go, in the next year or two. This brings a sense of Hope.
One Last Thought
Once school starts full time, let your child have some quiet space after school. Be ready with a favourite drink, a warm bath or something that your child finds soothing. Use tangible strategies to communicate home as a place of rest and recovery.
As kids head to ‘school’ at desks and dining tables around the world, it is recommended that parents try not worry too much about content and time. Even here in NSW, where it looks like there might be a staggered start to face-to-face learning, the majority of term time will still be at home. In my last post, ‘When Schooling Comes Home’, I mentioned that your teen’s school-at-home day is going to be a lot shorter than the usual 6 hour school day. If you and your teen are struggling a little, educators recommend focussing on the basics – maths and literacy.
My son’s teacher recommends 20 mins of free reading time, as part of his online ‘curriculum’ each day. During this time my tween curls up on the couch with the latest of whatever book series he is reading.
I am always trying to find book recommendations for boys. So I thought I’d call on an expert on this topic. Allison Tait is an internationally published bestselling author of middle-grade adventure series books. She is also the mother of boys. Here she gives us 30 books for boys aged 13, 14 and 15.
The Most Common Question about Boys and Reading
One of the biggest challenges facing parents of tween and teen boys is how to keep them reading. How do I know this? Because they tell me.
And the ‘my son, aged 13, has stopped reading’ or ‘my son, aged 15, has lost all interest in books’ variety of question is among our most popular.
I also know because the number one search query that brings visitors to my own website (allisontait.com) is ‘great books for 13-year-old boys’ or its cousin ‘great books for 14-year-old boys’.
So clearly there are lots of parents out there looking for great books for their tween and teen readers.
I’m also mother to two boys – now aged 16 and 13 – so I have seen firsthand what happens when books have to compete with sport/school/screens/girls for time.
My boys are very different readers
The older one (aka Book Boy) has been a voracious reader since he could first make his way from one sentence to another. He even ran his own book review blog (bookboy.com.au) for four years. But he’s in year 11 now and the volume of schoolwork plus a budding career as a singer/songwriter has slowed him down a tad.
The younger one (Book Boy Jr) would much rather run. But he still reads. We worked hard to instigate a reading habit with him – 20 minutes in bed each night (pretty much the only time he is quiet) – and it continues to pay off.
He starts a lot of books and only finishes the ones that really grab his attention, and that’s okay. (As an author, I take particular note of those books and read them myself!)
So, I guess what I’m saying is that I feel your pain.
The Key to Breakthrough
What I’ve discovered, though, is that the key to breaking through the ‘reading ennui’ of this age is finding the right book – and that you might be very surprised by what that right book is!
Don’t Rule out Books
I nearly fell over when Book Boy Jr brought home an entire novel written in verse. I would never have considered giving him a book like that, but he saw it in the school library (kids need school libraries, just saying) during Quiet Reading Time, picked it up and liked it so much he brought it home and devoured it.
Raising Teenagers is a place where you will find current psychological research on teens and tweens, in practical terms. It also has information and links to well-known experts, on adolescent development, so that you can get on with the job that you do best. That is – supporting, connecting with and loving your teenager.
Available in the UK, Europe & Commonwealth (excl. Canada)
Conversations with Teens
About the Author
My name is Collett Smart. I am a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. I have 25 years’ experience working with young people and their families, in private and public schools, as well as in private practice. I am also ‘Mum’ to 3 children (12, 17 & 19 years old). It’s great to have you here!