Transition back to school: How will I cope?

Transition involves change, loss or disruption of a prior structure in a person’s life, and is considered to be stressful

Hobfoll, 1989

Returning to school after the unprecedented disruption to our world by COVID 19 is a significant event. It is important to draw on your inner strength as you try to maintain a sense of control in your life to get through the tough times ahead. There will be mixed thoughts and feelings about this event. Amid the feelings of excitement and eagerness to return to school, there will be feelings of apprehension, concern and anxiety.

The integration of COVID 19 restrictions within previously established school routines and procedures; as well as clear communication and planning will ensure a smooth transition for everyone. However, the transition experience may make you feel tired and uncomfortable, but it will pass. 

Transition involves three phases: letting go of the connection to people and places (e.g., family; home environment); experiencing loss, emptiness, and a time of adjustment (e.g., adjusting again to life at school); and experiencing a new beginning (e.g., returning to a different school environment and routines).It is the ending that makes a beginning possible!

The transition back to school will bring a range of new experiences and challenges.

Academic Challenges: It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed as you adjust to face to face teaching again and newly adapted activities. Be sure to get the study/life balance right

Personal and Social Challenges: It is important to embrace student life once again, reconnect with your friends and teachers while being aware of and vigilant about the restrictions around physical distancing.

Administrative Challenges: Processes and procedures are complex particularly around VCE. Keep in mind that there is a solution to every problem, big or small. Ask for help!

Geographical Challenges: Take time to familiarise yourself with the changed surroundings (e.g., entry and exit points at school) and how to safely navigate your way around campus.

It is important to take small steps working through the challenges that confront you. Keep in mind that if you try to do too much too quickly, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

While some students have made considerable progress learning from home and have benefited from the experience. Others have found the experience difficult and have negative feelings, which in turn may impact their wellbeing.  It is vital these students’ feelings are acknowledged and that they seek the extra encouragement and support they need upon their return to school. 

A suggestion: Throughout the transition period, at the end of each day identify 3 positive things that happened in your day

Coping refers to the capacity of individuals to adapt to, or deal with the demands of change, difficult circumstances and situations, and challenges in life. Coping involves an ongoing interactive process with the environment; and is a conscious response that lessens the physical, emotional and psychological demands related to stressful life events and daily hassles.

Coping can be functional or dysfunctional. Functional coping refers to strategies that focus on dealing with the problem with or without reference to others. Dysfunctional coping is concerned with non-productive strategies, and an inability to cope. Functional coping strategies include: focussing on solving the problem, getting regular exercise, seeking social support, getting professional help, working hard to achieve, focussing on the positive, and humour. Dysfunctional coping strategies include: worrying, wishful thinking, ignoring the problem, self-blame, keeping to self. A feeling of not being able to cope often results in escape or avoidance.

For individuals to cope effectively it is important they believe they are equipped with the strategies to cope and that they have control over their thoughts and emotions. Anxious individuals perceive they do not have control over their thoughts and emotions and are more likely to use dysfunctional coping strategies. They appraise situations as harmful or threatening, believe they are unable to cope. They worry or ignore the problem or escape and avoid the situation; they tend to overestimate the threat and underestimate their ability to cope.

Therefore, for students who are anxious about returning to school it is important to develop a repertoire of strategies to manage your anxiety to cope effectively with the new school regime. The School Psychologists can provide guidance in developing those strategies.

Some suggestions for managing your anxiety:

Regular Exercise is good for your body and mind

Breathing Exercises: Sit up straight in chair, feet flat on floor, put hands on your knees, close your eyes or just look down

  1. Breathe in for the count of 3
  2. Hold breath for the count of 3
  3. Blow out breath for the count of 3

Repeat three times.  Some people find it helpful to do this exercise three times a day e.g., morning, afternoon and evening

Grounding Relaxation:This activity can help you stop paying attention to things that upset you, make you feel angry, anxious or worried. When you notice these feelings (anger, anxiety etc…)

Say to yourself (out loud, or in your head)

3 things I can see, 3 things I can hear, 3 things I can feel THEN

2 things I can see, 2 things I can hear, 2 things I can feel THEN

1 thing I can see, 1 thing I can hear, 1 thing I can feel

Meditation Apps:

Smiling Mind is a free app which includes modern meditation for young people; provides a sense of calm, clarity and contentment www.smilingmind.com

Headspaceis an app that trains your mind in meditation and mindfulness www.headspace.com includes ‘Free Take 10 Programme’

1GiantMindtrains you to meditate in 12 easy stepswww.1giantmind.org

Buddhifyincludes meditations for different situations www.buddhify.com

Daily meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and increase energy, self-awareness, focus and clarity

If you have any questions about this article, please do not hesitate to contact me via email bzjones@mgs.vic.edu.au

Over the past few months there have been momentous changes in our world.  It has been very hard to adapt to the changes, and for some the changes have caused them a great angst. Remember the school is there to support you. You just need to ask!

I wish you all the best for your return to school in the coming weeks.

Barbara Jones
Head of Counselling and Psychological Services