5 tips for transitioning back to school after lockdown
With the relaxing of lockdown restrictions, many children are transitioning back to school and day care after a long absence away. And as nice as it is to think we can all “get back into routine”, transitioning back to school is yet another change that can be unsettling for our children. It may even kick off a case of separation anxiety, which you may not have had to deal with for a while, and which I’ve written more about here.
When change is in the air, emotions are often heightened, and any emotional surge is not conducive to good sleep. When our brains are highly stimulated, it can be hard to wind down. This applies whether it’s nerves, anxiety or excitement. Here are 5 tips to help the transition back to school and keep sleep on track as well. Because everything is much easier when we’ve had a good night’s sleep!
1. Devise a social story to discuss returning
Broach the return to school in a positive way. For younger children, fun stories and pictures can help. One way to make it fun and positive is to develop a brief “social story”. These stories can remind our children that school or kindy is a familiar place that can be fun. It also tells them what to expect, and how to behave so they don’t need to waste mental energy on wondering what will happen.
What is a social story?
Developed by Carol Gray as a way to describe a particular situation, event or activity, like returning to school after lockdown, social stories include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. While social stories are often written for children with autism, they are also helpful for any child who may be feeling anxious about a particular situation. The story helps by offering guidelines for behaviour and reduces anxiety by making the “unknown” more familiar.
The benefit of a social story is that you can make it as personalised, or as simple as you like. Just make sure it’s written in language that is developmentally appropriate for your child’s level.
Here is one back to school example I found that you can download and print. But a quick google search will supply you with a wealth of information on how to personalise your story and make it your own.
Whenever our brains are engaged in high gear, whirring away, we get tired much more quickly and when mixed with uncertainty, this can lead to worry. We’ve all experienced those moments that our brains won’t shut off. By sharing a social story about going back to school, you can also discuss any concerns your child may have. Well away from bedtime! But what else can help if the change is making it harder to fall asleep?
2. Stick to a good bedtime routine
A good bedtime routine is great for everyone, especially if you involve your child in the process (which can include toddlers all the way up to teens). For the little ones make a chart of the bedtime routine and go over it with them, both beforehand and at the time. Some good examples of bedtime routine activities include: a bath, getting into PJs, a light snack (nothing with sugar or caffeine), books, happy thoughts or gratitude about their day and so on. The routine’s purpose is to act as a cue for your child’s body and brain; it lets them know that the time for sleep is near.
Some extra routine tips
The routine should be in the same order each night and move in a step-by-step fashion. For young children, giving them a sticker for each step of the routine (on the chart) can keep it fun, and a timer can keep them on track. A good length for a bedtime routine is about 30 to 45 minutes (the older the child, the longer the routine to a maximum of 45 minutes for a teen).
3. Time bedtime right.
I recommend a bedtime of between 7pm and 8pm for pre-school AND school aged children right through to adolescents. You’ll know your child and how long they have to sleep in on a typical school morning. But consider this: if you constantly need to wake your child to get them up, then he/she is going to bed too late. Putting your child to bed at the same time every night will teach their body to sleep the needed amount of night time hours, so they can wake up feeling refreshed. There really is no need for an alarm clock if your child is going to bed early enough!
Another reason for early bedtimes
There is much more refreshing “deep sleep” that occurs in the first half of the night, compared to the early hours of the morning. It’s this “deep sleep” that helps us feel physically refreshed – so it’s much easier to recoup the sleep needed when our brains are in overdrive from considering going back to school.
4. Try and prevent overwhelm.
Focus and distract your child before their emotions go too far. You can do this with relaxation exercises, day-to-day tasks or distractions. The important thing is finding the right technique for your child. The structured bedtime routine is great to help structure the brain at night, but what about during the day? One way is to practice breathing or visualisation exercises during the day. These can also be incorporated into the night-time routine once you child is familiar with them. Gratitude exercises, 3 positives from each day, or something your child is looking forward to is another technique that really can help the brain by stilling negative energy.
Until it’s time to go to school, you could give your child a job to do, whether that be packing their bag (beforehand) or drawing the teacher a picture to give on day one. Or if that is making them dwell on school anxieties, introduce a totally different “circuit breaker” to distract them. This could be a physical or mental task that is totally unrelated to school and takes their mind away from it. Play some board games, do a puzzle or get them to help out in the garden, or do some manual household chores.
5. Tighten up on sleep hygiene
Yes, sleep hygiene is a real thing, and it does help us sleep better. Here are two examples to employ before the return to school.
Limit screen time
TV and video games right before bed are associated with an increase in the time it takes children to fall asleep, so those activities should be stopped at least an hour before bedtime, often more if they have trouble winding down. This is all to do with the blue light emitted by screens that suppresses our sleepy hormone melatonin.
Make sure your child’s room is dark
This will help with earlier nights and later mornings. Natural light tells out bodies to “wake up”, so any light coming through the curtains at bedtime will make it harder to fall asleep. Then in the early morning, the early sunrise can cause us to wake earlier than ideal. It makes sense to purchase some black out blinds or even hang a blanket over the windows to help keep that light out. It really does make a difference! If your child feels more comfortable with a night light, make sure it is conducive to sleep by ensuring a warm hue; coloured red, orange or yellow.
The change in routine can take some time to get used to, and for some children it’s normal to see some behaviour get worse before it gets better again. This is a tell tale sign they are unsettled. Change is hard and can be anxiety inducing. Now is the time to keep what they know at home the same, as much as possible and really emphasise a good night’s sleep. Don’t be tempted to “give in” to things you wouldn’t normally, both around bedtime and in other areas. While you can add check ins or more comfort at night, you shouldn’t need to all of sudden stay with your child at night or have them join you in your bed if it’s not something they normally do. The more you can keep the same, the quicker your child will settle back into the school routine again, even if you do have a bit of a blip for a few days. And if you need a hand getting back into routine or establishing healthy sleep habits, that’s what I do! Book a free call to learn more. In the meantime, please follow me on Instagram or Facebook. I’d love to see you there.
Stay safe and sleep well,