'Back to School' with Dr Martha Deiros Collado

With lots of kids starting reception, pre-school, nursery, or going back to school for the first time since March, our topic for 'The Words We Speak with Dr. MDC' was a no brainer! For those of you that didn't catch the live Q&A, here are some of the tips and advice as well as your questions answered from this month's episode.

MY SON STARTS RECEPTION NEXT WEEL AND I'M WORRIED THAT MY ANXIETY WILL RUB OFF ON HIM.  DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS ON HOW TO MANAGE THAT?

First of all, that is an amazing question.  As a parent, if you're aware that you're feeling anxious, that's the first step.  The fact that you're even thinking about the impact of that on your child, it's amazing, credit to you! The fact that you're thinking about it is already a huge first step.

Secondly, there are lots of things you could do.  One of them is about opening up the conversation, because talking about anxiety is really difficult, and if as a parent you are able to share a bit about what is making you feel anxious and share that it can be so normalising for your child.

You can access a script that Dr. MDC has written about anxiety and how to talk to your children about it that can be accessed here The idea is, it's a way of explaining anxiety to children. Anxiety is a very real physical thing and if you're able to normalise these feelings and explain they come from anxiety, that can be so powerful as a strategy.  

Focus strongly on positive things about school.  Things that are the same at school, the playground, the people... etc.  Talk about what will be the same and also about what will be different.  For example, the older children might be wearing masks which will be different, BUT the uniforms are still the same.  That gives a different perspective from the anxiety that everything will be different.

If your child has never been to school before you can still focus on the positives.  That doesn't mean you tell them they'll really enjoy it because that might not happen but you could say 'You really like numbers don't you? Maybe you can tell your teachers all about the numbers we learned this year...'

The most important thing is to talk about the worry and then what you're going to do with it.  Talk about how you're feeling and see if they're feeling the same way too.  Talk about maybe having butterflies in your tummy when you feel this way and see if they feel that too.  After this, try Hot Chocolate Breathing with them:

Hot Chocolate Breathing - Make a hot chocolate and all you really have to do is take a deep breath in and count to three. Pause, breathe in the hot chocolate and breathe out to cool down the hot chocolate, have a sip and start again... they then learn some valuable breathing techniques. Doing this 3 to 4 times is enough to help them with their anxiety.

HOW DO I ASK A RECEPTION CHILD HOW THEIR DAY WAS?

The first thing to say is, don't ask straight away, which is VERY hard! Give them some time, they're probably very tired and also hungry.  The first big tip would be to take a snack for them, don't wait until they get home, give it to them straight after school, and maybe even a treat if it's their first day of school.

Then do something connecting, this really depends on your child.  Some kids are super physical and need to burn off some energy in the park or something like that, not for long, 10 -15 mins is more than enough time. Some kids need quiet time which works really well in dim-lit spaces, maybe read a book, do some colouring.  Then involve them in something that you're doing, whether its making dinner, setting the table or doing other bits around the house, do something together.  

You can then talk about their day when you're doing something together or at mealtime.  There are a few ways you can do this and different children respond to this in different ways:

1. You could talk about your day.  Sharing something about your day can help a kid open up to share something back about their day without you even having to ask them.

2. Avoid 'why?' and 'how?' questions like, 'why did you do this?' 'how was your day?' A great way to start the conversation would be with a 'What?' question.  'What was the funniest thing that happened today?' 'What's the most boring thing that happened today?' 'What was the thing you were most scared of?' Talking about emotions is a really good opportunity for you to understand your child's day better and how they felt about it.  It gives them permission to feel their feelings. 

MY LITTLE ONE REFUSES TO DO ANY KIND OF SCHOOL WORK AND HOW CAN I MAKE READING AND WRITING A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE FOR THEM?

Homework is one of those topics that comes up a lot.  Spend some time trying to understand why they're finding it hard.  Is it because it's boring, and if it's boring why? Is it because it's too hard and they need help understanding or is it not challenging enough? Do they feel like when they do it they could be doing something else? IS it the time of day, maybe they're tired, hungry, what to play and it's getting in the way of something fun.  Think about what's going on for why they don't like to do homework and try and change the environment first.  

When they say they don't want to do it anymore, it's about not forcing them to do it but giving them a break and allowing them to come back to it when they're ready.  It's not avoidance but it's also not 'you have 10 minutes left finish your work.' That doesn't give children the pleasure of learning, the pleasure of learning is self-motivated so if we want our kids to enjoy learning, they have to feel that motivation from within them and our role as parents is to support our children to get that motivation.  Validate when they've had enough, it's exhausting, allow them to have a break.  Think about it as resilience building and your child making choices and you supporting that choice without turning it into avoidance. Go back to it, maybe sit with them, talk it through with them.

Setting a homework routine is a great idea.  Do speak to your teachers about this but for little ones, they don't really need to do homework.  Until about 8 years old, they learn through play in everyday life, always learning.  Homework at that age is much more about building a routine. By the age of 8, your child is ready to be challenged academically and if you have a routine from a young age when they are 8 and getting more homework from school, they're used to the routine of homework as part of their everyday life.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OLDER CHILDREN (YEAR 6) AND HOW THEY CAN HANDLE ANXIETY?

It's really similar to that of the previous answer, about talking to them but using different language because they're older.  Have a look at these posts about anxiety in children from Dr. MDC here.

Anxiety comes in waves and hits quite hard, and then it passes.  When it shows up, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to believe it. Talk about it and validate their feelings.  That can really help kids see that somebody gets it, somebody gets how I'm feeling! Don't reassure because reassurance is avoidance.  Reassurance and anxiety are not friends! Let them sit with it, sit with them while they sit with it. Tell them that you're there with them, let it pass, do some hot chocolate breathes or try the 5,4,3,2,1 strategy:

Ask them to name:

things they can see.
4 things that they can feel.  
3 things that they can hear.
things that they smell.
thing they can taste.

They don't have to be in any particular order but it's always harder to find things you can smell and taste so it''s best to leave them for the last two.  This is a grounding exercise that links them to the here and now.  Anxiety often takes us to the 'what if's' and the future so don't engage in the 'what if's' use the grounding exercise to remind them they're here, now.  

You can then do some breathing exercises with them and once they're calm, you can do some problem-solving. Focus on the positives again, focus on what's the same at school, what they can look forward to.  Things that don't diminish the anxiety but focuses on the positives.  You're teaching them that anxiety comes, and it passes, which is such an important skill for them to learn so that when they're older, they're able to manage that feeling.

HOW WOULD I RECOGNISE ANXIETY IN MY CHILD? HOW WILL I KNOW THAT I'M NOT MISSING THIS BIG FEELING IN THEM?

Anxiety shows up in lots of different ways.  It's a very physical emotion so some of the main ways it might show up are:

Headaches
Tummy Aches
Shaking
Sweating
Loss of Appetite
Funny Tummies which can look like a stomach bug but is different because it won't be all day
Pains - painful feet, painful hands, painful muscles
Fatigue
Inability to focus or concentrate

WHAT LANGUAGE CAN I TEACH MY CHILD TO HELP THEM TO RESPOND TO MINOR PLAYGROUND CONFLICT? (NOT FULL ON BULLYING AS THIS WOULD BE TAKEN TO THE TEACHER)

Teach assertiveness! It's really important to teach your child to be assertive, that doesn't mean confrontational but if there is a minor disagreement and mean language being used, they are able to say 'That's mean, you can't talk to me like that!' and then they can make a choice about whether they stay in that situation or walk away.

One of the ways you can teach assertiveness to children is through modeling.  Often as parents, children don't get the opportunity to see what assertiveness looks like.  It's important that they can see you be assertive and kindly, say no to things.  You could even set up a scenario with your partner for your child to see if it doesn't happen naturally. They see you say 'No, I don't like the way you're speaking to me' and they also see the response 'I'm sorry, I'm tired, I didn't mean to speak to you like that' and you repair.  

If you witness these comments between your child and another child, you can speak them.  Tell them that you heard what was said and it wasn't very nice.  You can tell them to speak to the child and let them know that it was mean to speak like that and that 'I didn't like that'. You can also give your child the option of continuing to play with the same child or decide if they need a break.  It's important for your child to learn, not avoidance, but SELF CARE.  If someone is not being very nice then maybe they don't want to hang out with them, that is ok. That is them saying that at this moment in time, I don't want to hang out with someone who is being mean to me and that is ok! 

If your child is under 6, speak to their teachers, and discuss how to bring in kindness into the classroom.  How do they help children develop kindness within each other?  If they're not doing it, you're planting the seed with your teachers and you'll find that most teachers will want to teach their kids all about kindness!

MY LITTLE ONE KEEPS SAYING 'NOBODY PLAYS WITH ME' AND 'NOBODY LIKES ME' WHEN SHE GETS BACK FROM SCHOOL. IT'S HEARTBREAKING TO HEAR, HOW CAN I HELP HER?

These two things are probably the worst things a parent can hear, to imagine their child is on their own it really is heartbreaking.  First of all, breathe.  You're going to have to sit with it and you are with them in that sadness, hurt, and pain.  Your child is opening up to you.  As soon as they say it, it really triggers something for you as a parent.  Make a hot drink for both of you and sit down with them and talk about it.  Breathe with them.  One of the things is about saying to your child, 'That feels really hard, how does that feel for you? Do you feel sad that no one plays with you? Do you feel angry? Annoyed?' Validate, their experience! You don't have to fix it, not with them, as much as you want to fix it for them, all you have to do for them is be there and let them know that they can always speak to you and that you are always there.  It's most probably not your child's fault so there is no need to fix them. Separately from that, get some support for you.  It's a really hard thing to hear so as a parent, speak to your partner or your best friend or your family, speak to someone about it, and have support for yourself.  

When a 5-year-old says that, there are usually lots of different reasons.  Speak to the school, build a positive relationship with your child's teacher, it can be really helpful.  You don't have to say exactly what has happened but ask them about how your child plays or interacts with other people, who do they play with? Is she on her own a lot? You might be surprised because what might happen is that she does play with other kids for a lot of the time, but she also enjoys her alone time.  It might be that the particular time that your child is talking about is that she wanted to do one thing and the other kids wanted to do something else. In 5-year-old language, that might mean that 'no one wants to play with me' when really it's 'no-one wants to play my game'.  

Outside of school, try and make playdates.  Be strategic about organising playdates.  Someone who might have similar interests to your child, not necessarily the social butterfly of the class because what you want for them is a buddy.  If you're unsure, ask the teacher.  Talk to them about your child's likes and dislikes, who do you know in the classroom that is similar to her, and then arrange a playdate with that person.

Also, know that it isn't forever! Just because they're experiencing it now, doesn't mean they won't have friends forever but it is worth tackling it with the school now,

MY DAUGHTER HASN'T HAD AN ACCIDENT IN OVER A YEAR NOW AND SHE HAD ONE ON HER SECOND DAY OF Y1.  SHOULD I BE WORRIED?

This is interesting because I think it might be happening to a lot of children.  There are lots of reasons why they might be having accidents at school, it's the first time back since MArch so they might just be having so much fun and they went to the toilet too late. They might be in the classroom and suddenly feeling too awkward to ask o go to the loo.  They might have forgotten where the toilets are which is completely normal.  One accident doesn't mean there's a problem at all, it's a one-off but not a reason to worry.  Whilst toileting accidents can be a sign of anxiety, it would have to happen a lot more than once and be completely out of character.  It's usually at night time and consistent for about a week to 10 days, and then speak to someone about it, but not as a one-off.

MY DAUGHTER HAS BEEN BACK AT NURSERY SINCE JUNE AND HAS BEEN FINE ABOUT IT HOWEVER IN THE LAST WEEK SHE SEEMS TO HAVE GOTTEN SEPERATION ANXIETY AND CLINGS ONTO ME WHEN I DROP HER.  WHY?

Definitely speak to the nursery about it.  What's changed in the last week?  Is their key worker different? Has something in the staff changed? Maybe there are more kids in the nursery where there weren't so many in June?  Speak to the staff and see if they've noticed a difference or do they see her as being exactly the same.  It's a tricky one so you'll have to play detective but definitely start with speaking to the nursery.

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