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From Isolation to Reintegration

by Joanne Garfi author of Overcoming School Refusal

The advent of COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our lives in ways we never thought possible. On a daily basis, our government implements change designed to maximise our safety and avoid the horrors we have seen in other countries.  All change to date, is based on the here and now with little thought given to the long-term consequences of these changes. Social isolation is one such change. While it has been pivotal in “flattening the curve” it has created a population that has been isolated from real person-to-person contact and community participation.

This in turn has fed into the anxieties of those in our community who prefer to be isolated.

Mainly those on the Autism Spectrum and those with pre-existing Anxiety and/or Social Anxiety Disorders. My concern as a psychologist is for all those who fall into this category but, in particular, for the children.  

Many children have now been at home for between 6-8 weeks. For those children who did not like school or struggled to get to school these weeks are already too many. I have spoken to children on the Autism Spectrum who are loving being at home. One 17-year-old boy recently said when I asked how he was doing: “Are you kidding! My whole life I have been told I need to connect more with people. For the first time I’m being told that being socially isolated is required. This is heaven!!” I must admit that I too laughed at his joy and openness but projecting forward to a time when he is required to return to the real world of face-to-face classes, group work, noisy hallways, bright lights and academic demands, how will he cope?  This is why I have spent the past 6 weeks encouraging families in my practice to avoid the development of “bad habits” during isolation as these will, out of necessity, need to be reversed once the student returns to school causing unnecessary stress and conflict for everyone involved.  So, these are my tips for maximising a smooth return to school: 

  1.  Maintain a regular and reasonable bedtime and wake up time (how will they cope with early wake up calls once school resumes). 
  2.  Limit access to tablets, phones, and laptops unless for the purpose of attending online classes or completing online tasks (imagine the horror of trying to get a student back to school who has become accustomed to unlimited access to gaming and/or social media).  
  3. Adhere to a school day routine that encourages periods of work and play. If “work time” is unstructured and haphazard adherence to completing work will be compromised.
  4. Have the student sit down to their ‘school day’ in school uniform to aid in their understanding of what is expected of them at that time. 
  5. Just like school include daily exercise outside the home at a time that approximates recess and lunch at school (i.e. A walk, bike ride, scooter ride).
  6. Encourage regular contact, preferably via video chat, with friends and teachers so that upon their return to school they do not feel disconnected and fearful of having to start from scratch to rekindle friendships.
  7. In students who struggle to complete tasks, a video chat room with a small group of friends all working on the same assigned work will encourage task completion while also maintaining social connectedness and group work.
  8. Speak openly and frankly about the heightened levels of anxiety they will experience following an extended period away from school. Prepare by practicing relaxation techniques and normalising this event.
  9. Be prepared to modify your expectations of how much work your student can complete in one sitting. Students with special needs may struggle to sit and do their work in one sitting. 30-40-minute sessions may be all they can manage. 
  10. Acknowledge your own anxieties about your student returning to school. Address these with a professional if you feel they may impact the student’s smooth return to school.

For over 30 years Joanne Garfi has treated and consulted to teachers, counsellors and parents in a manner that is easy to comprehend, devoid of the jargon and theories, and gets results in Overcoming School Refusal. As a psychologist who has worked extensively across primary and secondary schools Joanne has provided treatment, support and specialised training to whole school communities for many years. She has a special interest in the treatment of Anxiety and Panic Disorder and is well known for her work with school refusal, childhood anxiety, behavioural disorders and developmental issues. She also runs a busy private practice and is the author of Overcoming School Refusal: A practical guide for teachers, counsellors, caseworkers and parents. 

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