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Pack up your troubles (in your pencil case)

How do we prepare our children for a new school, class or educational experience? How can we ensure we’re supporting them even in the midst of their anxiety? Transforming Lives for Good’s Rae Morfin shares her thoughts

It was with some trepidation that I entered the cloak-room of our local primary school with my twin boys in tow. By ‘in tow’ I mean one of the twins was pulling me in through the door while the other was pulling me back outside.

It was the moment we had been working towards for the last few months: the beginning of full-time school. Were they ready? Was their teacher prepared for these two very different characters? Was I able to trust this school, this teacher, to impart wisdom and learning for life to my boys? The teacher in me thought they would be fine, but the mother in me decid-ed to wait and see.

Ten years, three schools and more than 30 teachers later the twins are about to begin their GCSE years, and to be honest my feelings are still the same. But what I’ve learned with all their ups and downs is the importance of being consistently present in mind and body for their educational journey. What-ever the school and however skilful the teacher is, pursuing a growing relationship with your children will help them navi-gate and make the most of their school years.

For many parents and carers there are times during their children’s school experience that are difficult to handle. In the last year, Transforming Lives for Good (TLG) coaches linked with more than 100 churches to support more than 500 children who were struggling to settle and learn in school. Many factors can contribute to this: adverse experiences at home such as illness; bullying or abuse in the family, on social media or at school; neglect and death or loss. These struggles present themselves in various ways, including anxiety, anger, self-harming, eating or sleeping problems, or low resilience.

The Mental Health Foundation estimates that one in ten children in the UK have a diagnosable mental health prob-lem. That’s three children in every class. One in four children and young people in the UK show signs of mental ill-health, including anxiety and depression.

Statistics from the Department for Education show that in the year 2016-17 there were 381,865 exclusions. An astonish-ing 50,737 children were excluded from primary schools, 7,615 of whom were aged 6 and under. Children struggling with underlying anxiety can exhibit extreme behaviour as they attempt to unsuccessfully control the new emotions they are experiencing.

As the adults in their lives it is important for us to address the reasons our children are feeling angry or upset, as often when these are understood resolutions can be found.Whether your children are beginning school for the very first time, approaching secondary school or starting at yet another place, the following tips will hopefully help you give them the support they need.

Listen without assumption

I recently read an article about a teacher’s experience of asking her year 6 class to reflect on a number of areas in their lives, for example being at home, school holidays and moving schools. The children were asked to mark their worry levels using a scale of one to five, charting the reasons why they chose that particu-lar score.

Although the score was of interest to the teacher, it was the reasons that caught her attention. Her students were far more concerned about how they would get to school, what would happen during lunch and break time and how they would make friends than whether they would like their teacher or if their existing friends would be in their classes.

I am constantly surprised by the substance of my boys’ concerns, and how often they are completely different from my best guess at what they’re worried about. I’ve tried using a one-to-five scale when gauging their anxiety or enjoyment of certain situations and found it to be a really helpful way of help-ing them talk through their feelings. It is especially useful when followed up with a “Why?” or “Tell me more about that.” When I’ve suspended my own opinions and listened to theirs we are often able to work through times of pressure or anxiety toward finding resolutions, usually aided by hot chocolate and hugs.

A one-to-five scale will obviously be too complex for younger children, and some guess work is a must here, but it’s always good to ask “Am I right in thinking that...?” or “Is there anything you would add?” which help to foster a language of checking in and encourage shared understanding about their thoughts. When asking open-ended questions allow time for your little one to respond before moving on.

Keep planning together

When you’re aware of the concerns your child has you have a great opportunity to work together to figure out a response plan. This can be created through initial conversation, then by repeating the plan during the build-up to the first day at their new school or class. You could write up your plan in list form or with symbols. You might even consider creating story cartoons about getting to school, or whatever the concern may be. Having something to see or read can be reassuring at any age when anticipating something new.

It’s great if you can demonstrate that the plan may some-times be flexible: “We might decide to take the bus instead of walking together if it’s raining hard so you can arrive at school without looking too dishevelled.” This can help children antic-ipate changes in circumstances if your initial plan doesn’t work. The key is that you’re listening to each other and work-ing it out together.

If relations with a teacher, key person or friend at school have become fraught, it may be helpful to address the under-lying anxiety with your child first and then work out a way to help your child resolve broken relations or items.

We know that good, happy hormones are released when we are looking forward to something we enjoy. Research shows that a good balance of healthy diet, physical exercise, quality time with family or friends and the anticipation of something enjoyable helps to increase resilience levels to combat stress. What could you plan to do as a family or one-to-one with your child in the first week at their new school or class, or during a time of anticipated pressure?

A God journey

Friends of ours recently moved their children to a new school. What struck me was the way they brought their kids into the journey of change by praying together with them at each stage of the process. When our families got together over lunch, the conversation turned not only to the impending change, but to the fact that by bringing it to God together they knew he was with them and would guide them.

Jeremiah 29:11 says: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and future.’” God’s plans take time, and through periods of change we are able to grow in understand-ing that he is right there with us in the stressful situations in our life, and that through these storms we can grow closer to him with open ears and open hearts. God doesn’t always take stressful situations away, but he gives us renewed strength to face them. What an opportunity we have as parents and carers to invite God’s Spirit into the everyday ups and downs of our kids’ lives.

My prayer for you is that through the difficulties of change and the new term ahead you continue to develop strong and positive relationships with your children. That together you will know the God who hears and gives his strength, who plans and gives light for each step, and who is journeying with you and your family.

RAE MORFIN is head of early intervention at TLG

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