Behaviour & Emotions

How do I spell Omicron? Supporting our kids' return to school

Parenting Place Return To School

It’s been the summer we needed – some time off work, freedom to travel and see friends and family after a long lockdown for many New Zealanders, and so much sunshine!

While we knew it was coming, digesting the news that Omicron is circulating and the traffic lights have turned red once again is a bit of a blow.

As we figure out what this all means for our whānau over the coming weeks, especially as our kids head back to school, here are a few practical ideas to help you take more confident steps into 2022.

Lead by example

As our kids start back at school, kura, kohanga reo or kindy, there will be a lot of information for us as parents to process. And probably some big feelings on our part too! Experience in our workplaces has taught us that healthy culture is created from the top down. This is the same for our whānau. It’s really helpful to model confidence and remain calm, as our kids learn how to handle challenges by watching our example.

Children develop confidence by observing us tackle the hard things in life and problem-solve the tricky situations we experience. Calm breeds calm, and confident adults encourage confident kids. If we are freaking out and throwing our hands up in hopelessness, our kids may follow suit.

Of course, there’s a high chance we will feel somewhat overwhelmed at times (possibly even at multiple times throughout the day!). While we don’t need to hide the hard feelings, we can show our kids that while this is a little scary and different, and there will be challenges and new ways of doing things, we can be brave and resilient and get through this together.

Calm breeds calm, and confident adults encourage confident kids. If we are freaking out and throwing our hands up in hopelessness, our kids may follow suit.

It's time to kōrero

Have a family meeting (formally, with a sit down at the table, or casually in the car if that’s too intense for your crew), and discuss the red light setting, what it means and how it will impact your family.

Talk about how school might be different this year, with students grouped into cohorts and break times staggered for different classrooms and year groups. Talk about how there might be allocated play areas during breaks to keep students contained to certain areas. Talk about what might happen if there is a case at school, or if anyone in your family becomes a close contact and you need to go into isolation together. Talking openly about the possible scenarios can help to calm down any anxiety around the ‘what ifs’ and provides an opportunity to put practical solutions in place.

The morning drop-off

For younger kids, it’s very likely the morning drop-off will be different. My youngest loves to be walked into the classroom and settled in as the whole school thing is still feels a little new, especially after the summer break. Unfortunately, the red-light setting means parents stay off school grounds as much as possible, so we’ll be asking her big brother to walk her to her classroom. He’ll need to be patient and help her unpack her bag and settle in. This may induce eye rolls and grumbling, but a reminder about how, as a family, we stick together and help each other out will hopefully do the trick.

Other drop-off strategies include arranging to meet a classmate beforehand so kids can walk into school together, and there’s no judgement here if you need to instigate some rewards for bravery to be enjoyed after school.

No judgement here if you need to instigate some rewards for bravery to be enjoyed after school.

For some young kids, some extra preparation might be needed before school starts. While school might not be open for visitors during the holidays, a drive to school and a walk by the gates, pointing out classrooms and playground areas, can be enough to refamiliarise kids with the environment. You may even catch a glimpse of teachers coming and going as they prep for the term, in which case I’m sure there would be a friendly wave or two.

Call me theatrical but I find role-play so helpful – practising the farewell you will do when school starts each morning can make a real difference in alleviating anxieties around what is to come.

Don't forget your mask

Covid-19 protection guidelines at Red mean children as young as eight (years 4 and up) will need to wear masks at school when indoors. For students aged 12 and up they will also need to wear them on public transport.

Realistically, this is going to be challenging – particularly for younger kids in this hot weather. Showing empathy and understanding to our kids will help them feel heard and understood. We can be honest with them, with some light humour, and say things like, “Yeah, I agree, wearing a mask is not a fun time, it’s so hot and sweaty! Not to mention how much mask wearing reminds us to brush our teeth, right?” Providing empathy along with helpful strategies to manage mask wearing will go a long way in helping kids feel confident that they can cope with this temporary inconvenience to keep everyone safe.

Many classrooms offer ‘mask breaks’ where the teacher takes their class outside for five minutes mask-free, with the offer of additional mask breaks when a child requests them. One of my children is a little shy in class – drawing attention to themselves by asking for an extra mask break can be in the too-hard-basket so they suffer through it and end up feeling uptight. We find practising the act of asking for an extra mask break really helps build confidence that they can in fact do it. (I probably shouldn’t mention that I recently offered to pay them $5 if they could be brave enough to ask for this in class – not exactly ‘expert’ parenting advice, but it worked to help break the ice!).

We find practising the act of asking for an extra mask break really helps build confidence that they can in fact do it.

Reminding kids that they aren’t alone, that other kids and even teachers don’t necessarily find it easy either, can help ease any uncertainty and tricky feelings.

It might also be helpful to open up the conversation around mask exemptions. In one of my children's classes there were a couple of kids who weren’t wearing masks as they had exemptions – explaining this to your child is super helpful, so they aren’t sitting there feeling confused about why some people don’t have to wear them.

What's the plan?

Judging by how things are going internationally with Omicron, there's a high chance some of us will find ourselves being close contacts or unwell, and needing to self-isolate at home with our family for 14-24 days. Have a conversation around this with your kids now, explaining why this might happen, how your family would make it work and what isolation might look like for individual family members. Previous lockdowns have prepared us for extra time at home, but recapping on where each family member will work, or sleep if infectious, can help keep the focus on the solution, rather than the problem.

As you talk about the realities of Omicron and the potential for isolation and localised shut-downs, make sure your kids understand that there shouldn’t be any stigma around catching Covid. If people get sick, it’s not their fault. If things are cancelled or closed down because of a Covid case, pointing the finger and passing blame are not helpful things to do. And back to my original point, kids are learning from our example so we may need to take extra care around our language and comments in this regard. Covid is the problem, not people. We need each other! This is a great moment, in fact, to encourage your kids to think about the power of community and how we can support each other.

Take care and be kind – to yourself!

Friends, we can’t emphasis this enough. This is a really hard thing we are navigating and our capacity has taken a few hits in the past year, especially for those who endured Auckland’s long lockdown. We are heading into 2022 with very low reserves, so self-care, mindfulness and rest are especially important, especially in the face of another Covid hurdle to clamber over, under or through.

As parents and caregivers, we need to look after ourselves so we can care for our kids. Self-care is a parenting priority! And there is hope – this too shall pass. We’ve been through this before and we know we can get through this again. Be kind to yourself. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and fatigued, know that you aren’t alone. Call a friend or family member, turn off the news and put your phone down, go for a walk in nature, and take a few deep breaths (oxygen is gold for the overwhelmed brain).

Holly Jean Brooker

Holly Jean Brooker

Holly Jean Brooker works as a PR and Communications Specialist for Parenting Place. She is a mum of two, runs her own marketing consultancy business and has a background in high school education where she specialised in health and social sciences


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