How to Support Kids as They “Go Back to School”
By Lauren Showalter, MA, LPC, NCC
Where I live, mid Summer is time to start getting ready for school to begin. Schools usually reopen in mid August, so July is the time to buy new school clothes, pick out colorful backpacks, painfully pick out the perfect notebook, try on new tennis shoes, and get excited about seeing friends every day. My oldest will be going into 3rd grade this year, and my 5 year old is scheduled to start Kindergarten. This year was supposed to be filled with excitement and joy as my baby turns into a big girl and officially “starts” school. I should be gearing up to ugly cry as she makes this developmental milestone, but instead mid-July has brought me feelings of worry, confusion, frustration, and sadness. This is no normal school year thanks to COVID-19, and parents and families around the country are no doubt facing similar feelings.
Schools around the nation are faced with a challenge that has no good answer. Do we go back to school and take as many precautions as possible to keep everyone safe? “So risky!” Do we do remote learning to make sure there are few possibilities to share the virus? “Not possible!” I do not have an answer as to what the school systems should do; that is not my area of expertise. However, as a therapist that works mainly with children, I do have some thoughts and ideas about how caregivers can best prepare their children for whatever their school district decides to do:
- Talk: This seems so simple, but it is crucial that caregivers talk to their children about what is happening in their school district. If you know the plan, share that with the child. If you are unsure of the plan, explain that things will look different and that you will share with them the information when you have it. Stick to the facts (for example, the classrooms may be smaller, you may not be allowed to eat in the cafeteria, your teachers may be wearing masks, you will have classes on the computer, etc) and leave out your opinion of the situation. Children tend to react better to change when they know what is coming and they know what to expect. It is also appropriate to tell them that things could change again, and that everyone will have to be flexible.
- Ask: Ask your child questions about what they think about the changes, and how they feel affected by the pandemic. Be sure to ask open ended questions so it gives them space to give detailed answers. Ask about their feelings specifically. Ask questions more than once as their thoughts and feelings about the situation may change. Some examples could include:
- What are your thoughts about going to school (every other week, with these changes, on the computer, etc)?
- What will you miss most about how things used to be?
- Is there anything you are nervous or scared about?
- Is there anything that I can do to help?
- Listen: Be attentive and present when processing this situation with your child(ren). Things may feel out of control for them, so having you as an attentive anchor can be very comforting. Also normalize what they are feeling; acknowledge that whatever feeling they may be having is okay. Explain that they can come to talk to you whenever they need to. If you feel that your child’s feelings are taking over and they are having trouble coping, reach out to a counselor for assistance and support.
- Adjust: Adjusting from school to no school was abrupt and jolting for most people last Spring. Even though we may not know exactly what school will look like, we at least have more time to adjust right now. If your school is going back, start adjusting bedtimes and wake up routines a couple of weeks in advance. Make sure mealtimes and snack times are at relative times that they will be in school. There may have to be some adjustments (such as running around in underwear to putting pants on.) If your school is going back and requiring the children wear masks, practice wearing the masks during playtime so it becomes more comfortable. If your child is doing distance learning, set up a routine/schedule ahead of time.
- Plan: Whatever your school district plans to do, odds are that it will be different than last year. Whether it’s virtual learning, alternating weeks, shortened days, or what have you, that means it will most likely affect your pre-COVID work schedule (or home life if you are a stay at home parent). Make sure plans are made ahead of time of who is doing drop off/pick up, who is watching over your child if you have to work, how you will work and help with virtual school, and have back up plans in case things change. This is daunting for many families. The key is to try to make plans ahead of time, communicate with your employer about different options, pull on support systems, and use self-care.
- Model: Remember that kids, especially young children, do not quite know how to regulate their own emotions yet, so they look to the adults around them to help them decipher how to react. Be mindful about how you project your feelings when around them. It’s okay to model talking about feelings, such as “Mommy is so frustrated right now. I wish I had more answers to give you.” But if you are overwhelmed or unable to calm yourself, take a break to collect yourself before processing. Kids look to their caregivers for support and safety, and that is the most important thing you can convey to them right now. Saying things like “I am here for you”, giving extra hugs, or noting how there are lots of people trying to keep them safe conveys that even though things feel scary, they are being looked out for.
These are unprecedented times (I am sure you have read that statement 100 times now), and there is no perfect answer as to what to do about school. My simple advice is to be present and supportive of your child as they too are going through unnavigated waters, while also making sure you are taking care of yourself.
“Helping Children Cope with Changes Resulting from COVID-19”. National Association of School Psychologists https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/helping-children-cope-with-changes-resulting-from-covid-19
“How to Prepare Your Children for Going Back to School Post Lock Down”. NOW Health https://www.now-health.com/en/blog/how-to-prepare-your-children-to-go-back-to-school-post-lockdown/