Children of all ages have faced many difficulties during the pandemic, however leaving school could be considered one of the biggest obstacles a child may have to face; leaving a familiar environment indefinitely without experiencing a transitional period to mourn its loss can conjure difficult emotions and situations that seem hard to tackle.
Leaving Primary School
For primary school aged children, the fear and disappointment of missing exciting adventures in the form of school trips, sports days and clubs has meant that their opportunities for personal development, independence and emotional growth have been lost. The exciting opportunity to experience their first night away from home or their first outing without parental involvement can be considered extremely important to primary school children and with these events being withdrawn they may feel as if their entire world has been taken away, alongside their chance to pursue maturity, fun, adventure, and learning.
With this in mind, it may be helpful for parents to recreate the experiences that their child may have missed from cancelled school trips, like organising family outings to museums and other recreational areas. Handing over some of the responsibility to the child with an appropriate amount of parental support (e.g., letting them pack their own suitcase, allowing them to contribute to the itinerary) could help replicate some of the missed opportunities for growth and learning. Inviting fellow classmates to join these endeavors may also help patch the feelings of loss linked with cancelled school trips and help ease feelings of isolation caused by the pandemic.
Another difficulty experienced by primary school leavers is the abrupt ending of teacher and peer relationships, especially if there hasn't been a chance to attend school due to covid restrictions. The relationships built within a child's schooling experience are crucial for their social development and understanding of relationships; inconsistent school attendance followed by primary school graduation may mean that some children could experience very damaged and disjointed relationships and this can be very upsetting for a child which could manifest into relationship anxieties in the future.
Talking to a child about their school relationships can be an effective way to find out what is going on in their world and if they are struggling with the effects of the pandemic and leaving school. It may be worth helping your child to create special home made leaving presents for their teachers and friends so that they can process these relationships in a healthy way and come to terms with their closure.
Maintaining realistic relationships with school friends should also be encouraged where possible as this may help with the transition between primary and high school, it is important to remind your child that every relationship is special and that new ones are made as old one's end.
For some children, the ending of primary school can bring up new fears connected with starting high school, especially in a pandemic where schooling has been sparse; many may feel ill-prepared for academic advancement. Ending primary school and starting high school can highlight the reality of ageing and the life changes that come along side this including puberty, an expectation to mature and forced independence, which can be scary for an 11-year-old to face.
Allowing a child to express how they are feeling creatively can help them to process their feelings in a healthy way, as well as creating a narrative to communicate these feelings. Self-expression through games, arts and crafts, poetry, singing, or story telling/writing are just a few options that may help a primary school aged child through this difficult transitional period. There are also many helpful online schooling resources to help children catch up and feel more confident in the areas of education they may have missed over lockdown.
Leaving primary school in a pandemic can also stir up some very difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions in children for many reasons; feelings of loss, abandonment, and mistrust can be heightened by a lack of routine and consistency triggered by the pandemic. A loving, coherent family can help support a child through this challenging time by creating a home environment that provides consistency and reassurance through set mealtimes, and bedtime routines.
Having structure to fall back on at home can help a child tolerate the unpredictability of the outside world, especially when covid restrictions change over time. Setting fun activities for the family to do together can also help ease the fear of abandonment and loss that leaving primary school can generate.
For young children it can be hard to cope with and process all the predicaments presented by leaving primary school in a pandemic, however these can be worked through and tackled together as a family unit. It is possible to provide a sense of security and restore normality when working together as a team.
Leaving Secondary School
Just like with primary school aged children, high school leavers will also be facing the same emotional turmoil due to situations presented to them by the pandemic, but at a different (but equally important) developmental stage of their life.
Missing out on school trips is also a missed opportunity to develop independence, maturity, and social skills vital for the transition from child to young adult. The increased time spent on virtual social platforms and decreased face to face contact that comes alongside this can also influence a child’s social skills and ability to make and maintain friendships. These underdeveloped skillsets can cause social anxiety and a lack of confidence and self-worth, in turn feeding into difficulties faced around social interaction.
Encouraging high school leavers to organise their own trips away with friends may help them to rebuild some of the confidence and social skills they had previously lost over lock down, they may need some help from an adult with the logistics of planning a trip away or some creative suggestions around how they can spend quality time with their friends, but this is all part of the learning process. Some children may feel upset if their friends are going to a different college or sixth form to them and so the ability to spend quality time with them becomes increasingly important; learning how to say ‘goodbye’ or coming up with unique ways to stay in contact can help a child feel better about the relationship separation and/or ending.
Attending the end of high school in a pandemic can also contribute to the lack of achievement in self-discovery milestones, many children use high school to figure out which styles they like best, what sports/clubs/hobbies they feel passionate about and which social groups they feel most comfortable in. Without the opportunity to experiment with social presentation in the form of clothes, makeup and personality, many children may feel a loss of identity or a confusion about who they truly are.
There are many ways to support a high school aged child through their journey of self-discovery, one option is to window shop with them in person or online to explore the different styles in which they could use to express their social presentation, this can also work when looking at hobby and sports stores to explore other types of self-expressive routes.
It may also be worth researching into local in-person and online classes or clubs that the child could take part in on their journey to find what activities they enjoy doing. Support groups (like the ones held at Teenage Mental Health) can also be a way of assisting a high school leaver with opportunities to come to terms with difficult emotions and meet others who are going through similar struggles.
Lastly, allowing a high school leaver new freedoms to explore their feelings and identity through opportunities to develop responsibilities and independence can help them to prepare for the next step in their life; allowing them to take charge of dinner preparations, household shopping, or attend events and social gatherings on their own, can help with the development of self-confidence, life skills and help tackle any pre-existing anxieties surrounding dependency.
For young adults leaving college, the situation can become a little more complex especially as their time spent in this learning establishment is a lot shorter in comparison to earlier forms of academia. Not only this, but the pandemic has also meant that many college and sixth form leavers have missed opportunities that directly affect their future careers, behaviors, and social circles.
Many young adults will be upset at the missed opportunities they would have had to further their journey of self-discovery through partying and social group mixing. Although these events may seem fickle to others, teenage social gatherings provide invaluable opportunities for the safe experimentation of recently unlocked practices by those who have turned 18 e.g., experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol. Social gatherings and parties also allow these young adults to learn through observing the behavior of others and how they use (and abuse) these substances; without having the social security of a group to learn and experiment safely, many young adults may struggle to manage the responsibility of cigarettes and alcohol in later life or find themselves in unfamiliar and anxiety provoking situations when ‘normality’ is restored after the pandemic.
It is important to support young adults in the orientation of alcohol and cigarettes when they reach the legal age to purchase them, encouraging them to talk about their worries and curiosities about experimentation may help to figure out what decisions they may want to make regarding these substances; creating a safe non-judgmental space to talk about drugs, cigarettes and alcohol can help a young adult feel more comfortable approaching an adult if they need help with this subject matter. It may also be worth offering them the safe space to experiment legally with alcohol and cigarettes in the household environment so that they can feel more prepared when returning to party environments.
Arranging to pick up and drop them off to specific locations can also provide a safe and nonintrusive level of support for young adults when attending their first social events that may involve drinking alcohol.
On a slightly different but related topic, many young adults use their college and sixth form experiences to explore their sexuality and gender identity which many leavers will now have been robbed of doing so as they have been stuck indoors for a duration of this crucial time period.
Experimenting with sexuality and identity come hand in hand with social exploration through peer support and gatherings, much like with cigarettes and alcohol. This missed opportunity could leave some people who question their identity and sexuality feeling dysphoric, unsure, and anxious about their own bodies.
Sexuality and gender identity can be a difficult subject when supporting someone through the emotional hurdles that come alongside it. It is important to remind anyone who is trying to figure out their identity that they are loved no matter what, and that their choices deserve respect and space to grow and change with experience. There are many online and in-person resources that can be used to help someone through their gender identity and sexuality development and exploration (like Teenage Mental Health’s Gender identity support group), it may be worth researching to see what is available in your local area.
Another issue with leaving higher education during a pandemic is that there are no fully immersive opportunities for young adults to talk through and explore career ideas and opportunities and with most workplaces refusing volunteers and work placement; many are left with no experience to start perusing their desired vocation. On top of this, whilst having to experience over half of their education online, many young adults may then struggle to consider their university options, fearing that they will have a similar online experience.
On a positive note, as more businesses start to open, so have the opportunities for young adults to start volunteering and collect more experience in their desired career path. Try encouraging sixth form/college leavers to print off their CV and hand it out to their desired places of work, make a day of it and do it together as this will also help encourage conversations about their future plans and aspirations.
Although it can appear extremely overwhelming maneuvering the difficulties that come with leaving an academic establishment, growing older and moving onto the next stage in life during a pandemic, it is important to remember that we are not alone in this adventure and that there is support for everyone during this difficult time. Tackling difficulties as a team can help overcome these hurdles more so than doing it alone and it is encouraged to always talk about worries surrounding the ending and starting of school.