Worried about the school return? Trust your children’s resilience says psychologist

As anxious parents worry about kids returning to school during the pandemic, Dr Marilyn Muscat said that children are more resilient than we think

Over the last few weeks, children across the world have returned to school for the first time since the pandemic started
Over the last few weeks, children across the world have returned to school for the first time since the pandemic started

In just over two weeks, children across the country will return to the normality of the school year after one of the longest-ever educational breaks in history since the COVID-19 shutdown.

Anxious parents about the school re-entry at a time when Malta is still registering between 20 to 40 coronavirus cases a day, many worry about the emotional toll on children adapting to the new normal of schools: bubbles, clusters, facemasks, hand sanitiser, and lack of close contact with teachers.

But the educational and child psychologist Dr Marilyn Muscat says children are more resilient than parents may think. “What we need to remember here is that there is going to be a change for everyone – both for the children and the teaching staff.”

Despite the daunting challenge of the ‘COVID-19’ school environment, Muscat says children have already learnt how to adapt to the world’s new reality, by wearing masks at the supermarket for example, or having to see friends physically less often due to social distancing.

“So while I think it will be a change for children and they will need time to adapt, I don’t think it will be as drastic as some parents are fearing it will be,” Muscat says.

It is actually important for parents to reassure their children that measures are being taken to keep them as safe as possible while at school. “It’s important to point out that children pick up on what their parents say… so if the message they give to their children is one of panic and anxiety, that is how their children are going to react,” Muscat says.

And it is this that could lead to children being anxious or worried about going to school. “Some children might even cry because they wouldn’t want to go to school,” she warns. “Although parents should try and give children reassurance, they can never guarantee that someone at school won’t get COVID-19 because that could happen. But if you try and reassure them that measures are being taken… a child is more likely to feel safe, and less anxious about attending school.”

The government’s primary tactic to tackle the reopening of schools will be to enforce the use of masks, social bubbles, keeping desks 1.5m apart and appealing for parents to keep children home if sick. But a small yet sizeable cohort of parents are insisting on their right to keep children at home, fearing the school environment could be a breeding ground for germs.

Dr Marilyn Muscat
Dr Marilyn Muscat

But even here, Muscat says attending classes physically will always be more conducive to learning. A ‘screen teacher’ might be less inclined to notice when a child is struggling because of online teaching limitations. “If a child is struggling to understand, it may be easier for a teacher to notice this when lessons are being held in person and provide the support that is needed.”

But Muscat acknowledges that children with social difficulties, or those more prone to being shy, may struggle with the new protocols, specifically social bubbles. “Children who have social difficulties or those who are more shy than others, may struggle if they are put in a class where they don’t know anyone. They may end up isolated.”

The challenge for teachers will be encouraging these children to build their social skills, an important factor regardless of the pandemic. “It might be good to look for the positive in this situation: children can use this as a way to build social skills, which they will need in other aspects of life,” Muscat says.

Younger children may find it harder to adjust, being encouraged not to stay close to each other due to social distancing. “Younger children may like to hug each other so it’s important that we teach them why we’re keeping distance, and that they can still be friends with other children, even if they can’t be physically close to them.”

Children who do not have social difficulties would probably enjoy making new friends. “Of course they’ll miss their other friends, who they can’t see in school. So options will need to be provided so that they can still be in contact, perhaps through video calling or meeting before school starts, whilst still keeping a safe distance. This allows them a chance to still see their friends who are in different classes.”

Are you happy or sad?   

The introduction of face masks is a hurdle for those who rely on facial expressions to see people smile (or frown.) While this may not pose challenges for adults, young children look for motional cues from caregivers to interpret novel or potentially threatening situations.

That is, children rely on their caregiver’s facial expressions and tone of voice to regulate their response toward people and new situations.

Because of this, Muscat emphasises that teachers will need to be more verbal. With half your face covered, non-verbal expressions might not show. So when someone is smiling, it might be difficult to see to see it.

“So, in that case, I think we need to be a bit more verbal… I think now if teachers want to get a message across, a non-verbal action may not be sufficient,” she says.

“Now we need to verbalize it. Because it might not be obvious from the non-verbals or the expression that is not showing. But I think as long as we are explaining what is happening to them, or clarifying if children are confused, such as asking whether they are understanding, that should be enough to help them understand the context.”

And with masks, the need to verbalise must also be extended to praise: “perhaps now along with smiling, teachers can say something such as: I am very happy with what you did.”