Guest blogpost – Maria Ryan (Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and Play Therapist)

Maria Ryan is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist (Specialising in Play Therapy). I met Maria (virtually) through an online course during lockdown and asked her to write a guest blogspot for Irish Primary Teacher. I love her practical, informative and helpful approach to supporting children on the return to school. Hopefully you’ll find some useful tips and ideas in the blogpost too. Huge thanks to Maria. For more information you can visit her website here.

The return to school for many will be unlike previous years with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. For some it will somewhat familiar, with some going back to the same school, same teacher and for others there will be lots of changes and differences.

Along with this is the anxiety, anticipation and trepidation that I think is in the air at the moment for everyone.

Preparing for children going back to school

The feeling of safety will be at the core of everyone’s ideals when returning to school.

You can let children know what to expect  on their first day through the following ways.

  • Sending them a letter – You can let children know before they return to school what to expect.  You can let them know the time they will be starting school,  their break toms, who will be their teacher, who will be in their classroom the classroom and the pod.
  • Send them a photo of their new classroom, and perhaps their teacher too.
  • Or you could send them a video of their new classroom, how they will get there and where they might be sitting.

These options give  children a chance to experience you and their new surroundings, instead of arriving in on the first day and it all being brand new.

Depending on time, you may be able to send this in an email instead of posting, whichever suits you best.

And now it’s back to school time

Bring some movement in 🩰🤸🏽‍♀️🎤🤾🏿‍♀️🎭

For many, there will be a lot of anticipation about school.  I’m presuming that they may not have seen some of their friends for a long time and probably might not even know how to react when they see them again.  It’s like they will be learning to be friends all over again. When we think of covid, and it’s possible impacts, children will have (literally) lost touch with their friends so it might be lovely to do some connection games.  The younger the child the more they may feel the need to move.  I’m conscious that children returning will have spent a lot of time out of the classroom and may now need some time to settle back in to the classroom environment.   Sitting down for longer periods might be a greater challenge for  some children now.  For children to stay actively engaged in their pre-frontal cortex, the body needs to be regulated.

Introducing some movement breaks, particularly in those first few weeks might help bring the class together and keep the children regulated. Movement breaks could be a dance video from you tube , ( the song kung foo fighting is a lot of fun or anything with a bit of a routine) or doing some big stretching and yawning.  Yoga would also work for teachers who have experience in it.

Some suggestions;

Children will want and benefit from moving and connecting so simple games like:

Hi, Low, Bungalow the Hokey Cokey and Simon Says.

Children will have missed chatting to their teacher and will probably have lots of news to tell their teacher and the class. Perhaps inviting the children to draw a picture of  one thing they would like you to know about them, or something that happened during the big long break might be a nice way to get into the seats whilst engaging the creative brain.  For older children, this could be a chat or they could create a story with pictures or a storyboard.  Having children have a sense of success early on will help them build confidence in their place in the room.

Re-introduction to the school routine

Establishing routine is important for children.  Children love to know what’s coming next. This could be something like having a notice board/white board with the schedule up as they arrive, if they are older you could try talking through the day with them at the start of the day.

There is the potential that things may change as everyone settles back to school, but by having the routine set out for that particular day, this will help the class feel grounded for the day ahead.

I think this may also be important if school staff are affected by covid. For example if a teacher  is absent . The class will have an established routine, so the calm of the class is not dependant on the teacher, but can be maintained if a substitute teacher or a different school staff is needed.

It might be an idea for the teacher to explain the changes to children at their developmental level (always go to the earliest developmental level in the class, so everyone understands) , for example, what things are different, what’s new and also what things are still the same.  Children love to hear that some things don’t change,  for example roll call,  small and big breaks and homework etc.

Sample routine

  • Class starts

  • Roll call

  • Homework correction

  • Movement break

  • Class work

  • Small break

  • Class work

  • Movement break

  • Classwork

  • Big break

  • Classroom activity

  • End of the day wind down

Emotional Vocabulary and Engagement

Children are peer orientated and love learning from each other. Just hearing how children chat when the play can give you an insight in to their worlds.  Some may have the vocabulary to express their feelings like mad, sad, happy, excited, nervous whilst some may not have this capacity. They might  tell you that they have a spinny head, or a wibbly wobbly tummy, some might feel their hearts beat in their chest or some may feel like nothing is going their way today. Language like this may speak to them on a deeper level, rather than asking them are you sad etc.  We can all have these feelings but one thing we know is that feelings pass, and naming them helps.

Modelling naming these feelings for children normalises them, helps children understand and make sense of them and gives children vocabulary around these emotions.  Some may struggle to verbalise these feelings.

Enabling children to verbalise their feeling supports their regulation which will further enhance the teacher-child relationship.

Children love visuals, so you could have a blank picture of a child and have different visuals of feelings and have cut outs that represent feelings for example: a tornado in the head, a firecracker, a storm. They can place them on the picture and let you know if these feelings resonate with them.    Children often have a multitude of feelings and they may struggle to communicate these to you but they may be able to show you by pointing to a visual and where it might be in their body

Keeping regulated in the classroom

Children will have different energy levels, and some will find it easier to regulate than others.  I have found the use of fidget baskets really useful for helping children maintain focus in the classroom setting.   A basket with some fidget toys could contain  :squishy balls, pieces of playdoh for stretching, balloons with cornflour, fidget cubes.  There’s a sensory bundle on amazon to give your ideas. Each child can use a fidget and this can their fidget. This can also be empowering in choice making.

You could also read them therapeutic stories around feelings to add to the learning experience around emotion.

The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside and

Hey Warrior by Karen Young are great for Worries and anxiety.

For the younger children there’s a lovely series of books by Trace Moroney – When I’m feeling. . Angry, sad, happy and scared.

My Many Coloured Days by Dr. Suess is a great one for exploring feelings in a creative way.

Ensuring safety and sharing your calm

So many things for children have changed over the last few months.  As adults in their world, it is important for them to know that we are charge of keeping things safe and that we are doing our very best to keep everyone safe.  This is an adults job to worry about that.

Children will take in a lot of information and will have to process a lot of information in the first few weeks.  This is a big demand and children may become easily overwhelmed as they try to adjust to school life.

Indicators might be

  • Increased yawning

  • Getting agitated

  • Becoming frustrated

  • Withdrawing from games

  • Poor concentration

  • Fatigue

  • Tummy aches

  • Headaches

When I work with groups of children and see these behaviours presents, I recognise them as signs to move and reconnect, and just change up the energy if possible.

They may enjoy just some marching on the spot or some can do a story massage , where they can do the massage on themselves or they can tap it out on their knees or their desk. Choose something that’s handy and quick and easily achieved within their pods.  One example  of this is the weather massage.   – You’ll find a lovely one below.

One last word

If I could ask of you one thing is to please be really kind to yourselves over the next few weeks.  You are now our nations front line workers and I feel the next few weeks will be tough and demanding and things will change at lightning speed as new things emerge.  My masters in self-care highlighted the fundamental importance of self-care  so I would invite you to book some you time in. Pick an hour, during the week that is just for you, whether it is a bath, an online class in something , a book, a long walk or a coffee break with some friends.  You need to regulate too.

Massive thanks to Maria for her informative, helpful and supportive ideas! You can visit Maria’s website here.