Reflect, plan and prepare: supporting children and young people as schools reopen

Schools in Scotland have now reopened and the next month should see term begin across Northern Ireland, England and Wales. While school opening arrangements will vary across the four nations, this blog offers foster carers suggestions on how to smooth the process for children and young people.

Reflect and acknowledge

The last six months have been a time of upheaval and uncertainty. The re-opening of schools and services suggests that life is slowly, tentatively, returning to normal. But is it as simple as slotting back into old routines? For many children and young people this has been an unusually long time away from school so returning might seem unfamiliar or even daunting. They have missed out on seeing friends and interacting with their peers. For others the coronavirus restrictions may have brought a welcome respite from the challenges of everyday life, whether that was a chance to learn at a slower pace or finding it easier to regulate their behaviour in a home setting. It is important that adults recognise and acknowledge what children and young people have experienced and what they might feel about returning to school. Spending time talking and encouraging children to express both positive and negative feelings will help them to adjust to the coming change. It isn’t always easy to talk about feelings, so you may want to consider opening this conversation when you are doing a shared activity, or using The Fostering Network's storytelling resources to encourage children to open up.

Make a plan

It is very likely that children and young people will experience some changes when they return to school. This might include different roles for members of staff, social distancing, new routes around buildings and an increased emphasis on hygiene. Information about this may be available on the school website or be sent out via email shortly before the start of term. Contact the member of staff who has responsibility for looked after children (the designated teacher in England), to ask for guidance and support during the transition back to school. Key recommendations from our report on Education during the Covid-19 pandemic and transitioning back to school include that schools should prioritise the emotional and social needs of looked after children, as well as their educational needs, during the transition back to school. A review meeting or conversation should take place as soon as possible and foster carers should be fully involved in this process. You may find our return to school resource helpful to use as a checklist. Local authorities and trusts have a specific statutory duty to support the education of looked after children, so your virtual school (if in England) and the child’s social worker should be able to point you in the direction of appropriate guidance and support.

Positive preparation

As the start of term draws near children and young people may begin to experience a range of feelings, from excitement to apprehension. However there are some simple techniques you could try to help them cope with these emotions. Firstly, aim to think and talk positively about the return to school, as this will convey a positive message to children too. Relaxation can be helpful and Young Minds have some useful tips for relaxation and reducing anxiety in young people. Visualisation or mental rehearsal can also help to reduce fear of the unknown. Begin by sitting together in a relaxed place, perhaps with some calming music. Now ask them to imagine themselves slowly walking through the process of going to school: getting up, getting ready, preparing for the day, travelling to school and finally going inside the building. How do they feel now? Another useful exercise is to draw two large circles on a piece of paper: one circle for the child or young person to write down things they are looking forward to at school, the other circle for any worries and concerns. Now work together to address those worries and concerns, writing ideas and solutions on the piece of paper. Remind your child or young person of strategies they could use if they are finding it difficult to be back at school. Do they have breathing techniques they could use if their stress levels begin to rise? Or perhaps there is a trusted person they could go to during the school day? Finally, remember to check any requirements for school uniform, kit or equipment, as these may have been updated due to new hygiene rules.

Supporting learning

There are some valuable things you can do at home now to support your child’s learning for the year ahead. The most important is to encourage your child or young person to read for a period of time each day and to talk to them about what they have read. Reading doesn’t just have to mean fiction: your fostered child or young person will also benefit from reading factual books, magazines, comics or newspapers. Libraries are re-opening, so may be loaning out books or running reading challenges during the remainder of the summer holidays. For primary aged children revision of key mathematical facts, such as times tables, is a good way to support your child’s learning as the holidays draw to a close. Please see our webpages on supporting reading, writing and mathematics for primary learners. Foster carers of secondary age children may like our recent blog on educating Key Stage 3, including links to useful resources.
Finally, it is important to remember that every child and every fostering family is unique. These suggestions won’t cover all circumstances, but offer a starting point that you can adapt to meet your needs.

Susan Soar is an Education Project Manager for the Fostering Network and was previously a primary teacher.