Back to school

Back to school! The big return!!

Yesterday felt somehow very strange. Our not-so-little-one starting Year 6. How did that even happen? But it was a first day of school like no other.

The first day back after 6 months at home – give or take a fortnight of half days at the end of the Summer term. 

Tuning in to our along the way made me reconnect and reflect on the realities of a heightened separation anxiety caused by pandemic parenting. 

In Spring of Year 5, we had already started working on a few milestones of independence. Our little one going to run errands at the local shop. Taking the lead when crossing the road. Being followed going to school, rather than hand-in-hand. Going to nearby friend’s houses independently. 

At the start of lockdown, all that suddenly stopped. We held each other close in our bubble – and the rest of the world at 2 meter’s distance. At least.  

So as the big return to school loomed, and the reality of our child being in her last year of primary school landed…so our responsibility to try to engage with those 2 transitions hit home. 

First there was the digging in on routines – re-gearing from holiday mode to incorporate reading, maths practice, music practice, earlier bed-times and waking-times…a wrench!

Then  – and this was harder – getting back into the parenting mental-challenge of letting go after anxious times. 

After the last play-date of the holiday, we came back home -just around the corner – to discover I still had the beloved friend’s waterproof in my back-pack. I just about managed to stop myself rushing back out to return it and checked in…

Why am I adding something to my plate, that my child is more than capable of doing herself? 

So I handed the raincoat to her and tasked her up – with the instructions that I would see her over the one road (right in front of her house) – then she was to go straight there and come back. And it’s observing myself hereafter – where the tell-tale signs of the lock-down legacy come in…

I see her over the road. I stand, in stockinged feet, in the porch and see her go off right around the corner. And I stay there. Waiting. So my head set up the independent experience… but my heart went into drag. As soon as she was out of sight, I was torn…do I go after her and watch her go round the next corner? But I was in my socks – so no. I stay in the porch way…why? I take out my smartphone for a classic distraction and start to call back a friend who is expecting me…She’s not available.

Suddenly my heart is racing. My self-talk is torn between the hideous, insidious vision of her being bundled into a van, and telling myself not to be utterly stupid. I come inside and check what time I made the call, as a gauge around how long my pride-and-joy has been out of my sight. It’s 4 minutes. It feels like a life-time. I find myself calculating how long it should take to do the walk there and back, do the handing over of the coat WITHOUT lingering and chatting. 

I faff around at my desk – which is at the window opposite the point where I instructed her to cross the road on her own (first time in 6 months) safely. I am distinctly hovering, craning, and trying to see the blonde ponytail swishing and bobbing over the car roofs. FINALLY she arrives. I watch her cross – looking both ways and checking as she comes safely home. She sees me watching and laughs. 

The whole scenario is almost wholly emblematic of the way the threat circuitry of our brain takes control. How intrusive thoughts and worries surrounding the unfamiliar and uncertain hijack our focus, take us away from our purpose and make us ping around in reactivity. 

What do you notice about points of separation for you as a parent right now?

What are you noticing in terms of your child or teen’s behaviour around the issue of separation?

I know I am not alone in these feelings. The press reflects – and indeed energises this threat-based thinking. Because it is clear that we are engaging in several strands of experimentation with social behaviours around the COVID-crisis. We are either risking infection and infection rates rising, or we are risking our child’s social development and mental health…or even being fined for not sending our children to school. 

On the work-front, we are being encouraged….or does it feel a little cajoling to go back to the office for the sake of colleagues’ mental health and the high street. 

Many small things right now, feel like big jumping off points. 

As a coach, and as an educational professional, I know from the research how vital the development of autonomy is in providing our children with the freedom and the confidence to fully experience and develop their potential. 

What aspects of your child’s independence and autonomy have been cut back due to the habits of mind, and norms of the pandemic?

Does that still feel right and true to where they should be – and where you would want them to be according to your own values and sense of purpose as a parent?

Watch out for RIGIDITY and CONTROL – are you being driven by THREAT – it can usher in an inflexibility that doesn’t always serve you well in the task of nurturing GROWTH, OWNERSHIP, ENGAGEMENT. A sign of this is where your ‘suggestions’ are so tight, the people around you are fighting you tooth and nail….


Self-determination theory and motivation.
A framework for wellbeing for parents to bear in mind.

We all want our children to be able to engage with life with full-heart. To drive themselves forward with curiosity, confidence and interest. 

So how does it work – and what is our part in it…

The natural intrinsic drive to grow and develop is built on a 3 facets:
With COMPETENCY, our kids will move themselves further and push themselves when they feel it is safe to do so, when there is enough of a sense of a secure base in their skills and capabilities.  If our kids don’t get the opportunity to experience competency, they won’t develop it. Similarly, if we are too worried and are too controlling, they won’t feel competent enough to engage.

Coaching questions around COMPETENCY:

  1. How might we be playing small around extending competency in our little ones? 

    1. How has the legacy of lockdown changed our views about the range of opportunities for developing new competencies?

      1. What signs might we see in our child / teen’s behaviour that might indicate competency is low? Eg Inertia, lethargy, demotivation are often more linked to discouragement than laziness…

RELATEDNESS is where their relationship with us, and their teachers and peers is fertile in a positive feedback-loop of appreciation and noticing. Relatedness is the magic fuel that makes THEM want to perform, engage, contribute, work hard. 

Coaching questions around relatedness:

        1. What is it about the way we parent that actively encourages them to contribute, extend further, work harder? 

          1. In anxious times we want to hold them close, to protect them, cherish them…but sometimes this means we end up fixing and solving and stepping into the space where they can step up. What might this look like in YOUR house?

            1. Are there signs that our relatedness is getting in the way of autonomy,  pre-emptying choice and the chance to feel that THEY have agency in what happens next? 

AUTONOMY is all about them feeling that they have CHOICE, that it’s THEIR LIFE, and that they can engage in WHAT MATTERS to them. Now the COVID crisis has curtailed quite a lot of autonomy for all of us. For extended periods of time, small children have been unable to swing their own swing or slide their own slide. Teens have been far more restricted about how and when they connect with peers. Exam candidates and university applicants have had their destinies wrestled out of their hands. Next year’s exam candidates have the uncertainty around how it’s all going to work. When autonomy is eroded, it can create space for learned helplessness to grow. 

Coaching questions around AUTONOMY:

              1. How can you change your role from being ‘bad-cop’, the homework police, the micromanager, to consultant?

                1. How can you talk about choices and consequences instead of trying to make them do what we want them to do? (Which is actually beyond our control…)

                  1. What opportunities can you take to change the dynamic. Who is doing all of the work and the caring about topics of concern eg homework. Is it YOU and the TEACHERS who are working the hardest and caring the most? How can you step back to get them to step up and fill the void?

Sometimes it’s hard to pass the baton to them. We get beset by fear that they are behind, they are struggling. We worry that if they are C+ now, they will have a C+life. We need to be patient and have faith in them. They will step up in their own time – but not if we get in their way. 

Boundaries concerning independence, the development of competency and autonomy need to be curated, revisited and renegotiated. If your boundaries are too rigid, or extremely loose,  and you are locked in power struggles, or ricocheting from relaxed attitudes to reactive clamp-downs, then it may be a sign of something going on under the surface. Consider getting support. 

In these times of uncertainty, we can be at odds with our parenting partner in our views. One person may be relaxed, the other more threat avers. Similarly with friends and family. It can be hard to disentangle the thinking around the emotionality of that. Consider the resources available to you. Trusted family and friends, or a more objective sounding board. 

If this edition resonates and you’d like a conversation, or are interested in coaching around this theme, do get in touch.

As always, feel free to share and recommend to friends. It really helps. 

With love, gratitude, and all power to you in navigating the next phase of pandemic parenting!


Recommended Links – Enjoy!
An outstanding blog post from a few years back – but packed with great substance for us now: series of shortie videos for working with children on positive thinking and social and emotional learning: excellent article by a Child Psychologist and Virologist husband and wife team with research-based information about the risks and rewards of the return to school:

More to explore