Advice for parents as schools re-open

Signage reminds everyone to be safe.

As schools prepare to reopen – again – after President Ramaphosa announced that they would again “take a break” as the number of Covid-19 cases spiked, parents may be wondering how best they can prepare their children for their return to school – and the anxiety that may be associated with it.

Addressing the country on Thursday July 23, President Ramaphosa announced the closure of government schools from Monday July 27, with Grade 12s returning on Monday August 3; Grade 7s on Monday August 10 and the rest on Monday August 24. He also said it was likely the current school year would extend beyond the end of 2020.

Clinical psychologist Natascha Stallkamp, who works in private practice in Goodwood, says making the decision to keep a child at home or send them to school is a difficult one. Each child is unique and it’s important to consider each child’s situation and needs when making this decision, she says. But most children can adjust to a new normal, with support from their parents.

Ms Stallkamp, who lives in Kenilworth, says parents of children without pre-existing mental illness need to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of sending their child to school. Keeping them home means they are missing out on education and social learning through contact with other children.

While concerns about increased risk of infection are understandable, she advises parents to speak with their children about simple safety steps to reduce anxiety for the whole family.

Ms Stallkamp says children learn from their parents. If children see a parent panic, they will mirror that, she says. “Instead, be a model for your child by managing your own emotions and giving your child accurate information. Remind children not to hug friends or share food or drinks, not to touch their face and eyes, model how to wear a mask properly and practise good hand hygiene with them,” says Ms Stallkamp. She also advises parents to prevent stigma by discouraging their child from teasing those who are not well.

Observe your child’s mental health and behaviour. These are some red flags to look out for: 

  • Pre-school: bed wetting, thumb sucking, changes in appetite and/or sleep patterns, withdrawing from parents or others, being more clingy than usual.

  • Primary school: irritability, aggression, nightmares, school avoidance – more anxiety than usual or more clingy than usual, decreased concentration. 

  • High school (teenagers): sleep disturbances, noticeable changes in eating pattern – eating much more or much less, agitation, irritability, frequent conflicts, physical complaints such as stomach aches or headaches, delinquent behaviour such as destroying objects or stealing, decreased concentration.

If any of these continue for more than two weeks, Ms Stallkamp recommends seeking professional help.

Dr Nic Spaull, a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University, says the costs of being locked up at home (potentially alone), are far greater than the small risks they face at school. Children do not get severely ill from Covid-19. Those under the age of 20 make up less than 1% of total Covid-19 deaths in SA, says Dr Spaull.

Natascha Stallkamp recommends these useful resources:

  • To alleviate anxiety in children: A free e-book suitable for young children by Brackenfell-based psychologist Garth Newman called The Super 3 and the Worry Worm. He also provides a free breathing exercise animated video that will help kids (and adults) blow the Worry Worm away.

  • Family mindfulness techniques

  • For parents: The University of Johannesburg has a mental health parent support group for issues related to Covid-19:    

  • For school staff: The LifeMatters Foundation, https://lifemattersfoundation.org/, offers trauma-sensitive workshops for teaching staff for a donation (recommended R700 to sustain their counselling and LifeSkills programmes beyond lockdown). For bookings, contact kaylatess@lifemattersfoundation.org.za