Starting a new school year can be stressful during the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak has caused major disruptions to daily life and children are feeling these changes too, especially as we transition back to a not-so-normal school year. While the return to school will be exciting for some students (and maybe a welcome change for parents), others may be feeling anxious or frightened. Here are some tips to help you handle the back to school transition, navigate emotions your children may be experiencing, and resources for parents tackling remote learning.
Back-to-School Transition Tips
Whether your child is learning onsite at school, learning remote at home, or a hybrid model, starting the school year off on a good note can influence children’s attitude, confidence and performance both socially and academically. The degree of adjustment depends on the child, but parents can help their children (and the rest of the family) manage the increased pace of life by planning ahead, being realistic, and implementing a few back-to-school habits.
- Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines
Plan to re-establish the bedtime and mealtime routines (especially breakfast). Prepare your child for this change by talking with your child about the benefits of school routines in terms of not becoming overtired or overwhelmed by school work and activities. Include pre-bedtime reading and household chores or other routine-based tasks that may have been suspended during the summer.
- Create a family calendar
Utilize a shared electronic calendar to make a note of important back-to-school dates. This is especially important if you have more than one child and need to juggle additional obligations or family activities. Even creating a monthly paper calendar to hang on the refrigerator or common space could help children learn to follow the calendar as well.
- Designate a clear place to do homework
It’s important to create a routine spot for children to complete their school work, younger children usually need an area set aside in the family room or kitchen to facilitate adult monitoring, supervision and encouragement. Older children could use a home office or have the option of studying in their room or another quiet area of the house.
- Leave plenty of extra time
Make sure your child has plenty of time to get up, eat breakfast and prepare for school. Remember, change can take time and their routine may have been very different over the last few months. Also mishaps occur – so allow for extra time; rushing can create even more anxiety in an already high stress situation.
- Focus on the positives
It’s important to start the transition back to school by focusing on the positives; being able to see their friends and teachers (if they are physically returning to the classroom or virtually for remote learning), excitement around a new daily routine and the opportunity to learn new things. Parents can help their children to focus on the things they might be looking forward to by asking them questions like, “What are you looking forward to on your first day of school?” or “What have you missed about school?” Once school starts, you can ask: “What was the best thing that happened today?”
In-person School Tips
For children attending school in-person, this school year will look and feel much different than in the past. Even children who are eager to return to class will need to adjust to the greater levels of activity, structure, and, for some, pressures associated with school life. Not to mention the new safety protocols, classroom changes, meal time adjustments and limitations during recess. Talking to your children ahead of time about these changes will make a big difference in their ability to adjust.
- Build safety into the daily routine
Start talking to your children now about the new protocols, explain some of the changes they will see at school, such as needing to wear a mask and following new distance rules. Young children may find it difficult being physically distanced from friends and teachers while at school. Reassure children that the new safety measures are in place to keep students and teachers healthy but there are others way to connect with friends even from a distance. You can help children identify their role in staying safe such as avoiding touching their face, coughing or sneezing into their elbow, washing their hands or using hand-sanitizer frequently. It’s important to build these healthy habits into their daily routines before school starts so you can monitor your child’s ability to adhere to these new rules and help them adjust before they even step foot into the school.
- Have a flexible mindset
While predicable routines are important, it’s also equally important to prepare your kids that things may change like they did last spring – and that’s okay. If your routine needs to change, assure them that together you’ll make a new one. Letting your kids know ahead of time that schools may need to close again will help them to be prepared for the period of adjustment ahead. It’s also important to continue to remind them that learning can happen anywhere – at school and at home – and that they can also keep in touch with and support their friends online too.
- Stay informed and connected
Monitor emails from your school closely to stay up to date on safety protocol changes and potential changes to school schedules. Stay connected to your child’s teacher, know how your child is coping with the new safety protocols and if you need to reinforce any additional structure or learning at home.
Remote Learning Tips
Those children attending school completely remote (or on a hybrid model) may be experiencing different challenges than in-school learning students. They may be angry about not seeing their friends’ in-person and parents may experience anxiety over having to juggle being a teacher and working full time. No matter if your student will be completely remote or tackling a hybrid model, here are some tips to help make the transition a little easier.
- Construct a predictable routine
Since changes in routine can be stressful, it will be helpful to talk with your kids about why they are staying home. One way parents can help children build feelings of safety and security during COVID-19 is by creating a predictable daily routine. You may want to try to follow your child’s regular school schedule, or let them help create a daily schedule that can be hung on the refrigerator or somewhere they can see it each day. Usually, things we can control make us feel safe because they are predictable, while things that fall out of our control can lead to feelings of anxiety because they are unpredictable.
- Build in flexibility
In order to accommodate your own work schedule and other responsibilities, build space into your schedule for unpredictability. Whether you are working remotely, juggling supporting your student, or a family member or daycare service is supporting your student, set expectations ahead of time as to when you will be available and not available. Be upfront with your colleagues about your situation and share that unexpected interruptions should be minimal but may occur. It might also help to set aside time in the evenings to check assignments or work together on reading and other skills instead of trying to accomplish that during the work day.
- Take breaks
Schedule time during the school/work day for lunch, snacks, age-appropriate breaks (think physical education, recess, etc.) or simply time to step away from school/work to connect. Keep in mind younger children may only be able to focus on a task for 15 minutes at a time. Take lots of movement breaks, sing songs and get outside when you can!
- Build in time for creativity
Make time for music, art and other creative subjects. This may include time for your child to practice an instrument, draw, paint, try their hand at drama or develop other skills. Have younger children practice counting by stacking blocks, building Legos or building a fort from sheets.
- Set up a home schooling space
Just like you have a remote working space, designate an area in the house for your child to have a remote learning space equipped with any school supplies and electronics they made need to complete their assignments and be productive during the scheduled school time.
- Turn off the television
Encourage your child to play quiet games, do puzzles, flash cards, read a book, color, or other quiet activities instead of watching television before remote learning begins for the day. Television is distracting for many children, and your child will be better prepared to learn each morning if he or she has engaged in less passive activities. Additionally, since most remote schooling will utilize screen technology, leverage creative ways for children to avoid television throughout the day and if possible, encourage outdoor activities. However, being a working parent may mean, at times, leveraging television or tablets to entertain your child while working, encourage positive programming.
- Help your child safely connect with friends and relatives
Connecting with friends and family members outside your household is important. Work with your child’s school, their friends’ parents and others to help them stay in touch. Consider taking turns leading virtual lessons or hosting virtual play dates. Have your child write letters to people they care about while practicing handwriting and grammar. If your child’s school starts to return gradually, your child may be anxious about being separated from their friends. Continue to reassure your child that schools will open again for everyone once it’s safe.
- Ask for help from teachers
As a working parent, you may feel a bit underwater trying to home school and work full time. Don’t put it all on your shoulders, see if your spouse, partner or another adult in your family can share some of the teaching. Or try to utilize a daycare service or connecting with others parents in your community to support you. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for help from your child’s teacher. Share with them your working situation, how you will be supporting your student, if your student will be doing assignments during non-scheduled times, and what support you need from the teacher. We’re all in this together so leverage support from all avenues that you can!
Overcoming Anxiety Tips
Parents and children are experiencing greater levels of anxiety and stress tackling the transition back to school. Some may feel nervous about contracting and spreading COVID-19 at school, or frustrated by vague reopening plans and skeptical of whether children are able to follow social-distancing and mask protocols. While levels of anxiety and stress may be high, parents play an influential role in helping children cope. Leverage these tips to encourage a positive back-to-school transition and help to reduce your child’s anxiety.
- Have honest and open discussions
It’s important to have honest, factual and open conversations with your child about COVID-19 and its implications for returning to school. Tailor the depth and breadth of conversations based on your child’s age and maturity level. You can make them feel at ease by having an open conversation about what it is that’s worrying them and letting them know that it’s natural to feel anxious.
- Let your children know you care
If your child is anxious about school, send personal notes in the lunch box or book bag. Reinforce the ability to cope. Children absorb their parent’s anxiety, so model optimism and confidence for your child. Let your child know that it is natural to be a little nervous anytime you start something new but that your child will be just fine once he or she becomes familiar with classmates, the teacher, and school routine.
- Remain calm and positive
If the first few days are a little rough, try not to over react. Young children in particular may experience separation anxiety or shyness initially but teachers are trained to help them adjust. If your child is able to be onsite for school, try not to linger when you drop them off. Reassure them that you love them, will think of them during the day, and will be back. If you are supporting a remote learning student at home, have some patience, this is just as challenging for them as it is for you. It’s important to be calm and proactive in your conversations with your children – check in with them to see how they are doing. Their emotions will change regularly and you need to show them that’s okay.
- Reinforce your child’s ability to cope
Give your child a few strategies to manage a difficult situation on his or her own. But encourage your child to tell you or the teacher if they are having continued challenges with the new safety protocols or learning remotely or in the class room. Maintain open lines of communication with the school. Many children, for example, display some difficulty separating from parents to attend school, however tantrums when separating, problems sleeping alone or refusal to attend activities without parents may suggest a problem requiring intervention. Likewise, some shyness or worry about schedules, schoolwork, or friends is natural during the back-to-school transition, but ongoing withdrawal or worries may signal a problem.
- Leverage creative emotion identification
Whether at school or at home, caregivers can engage children in creative activities, such as playing and drawing to help them express and communicate any negative feelings they may be experiencing in a safe and supportive environment. This helps children find positive ways to express difficult feelings such as anger, fear or sadness. As children often take their emotional cues from the key adults in their lives – including parents and teachers – it is important that adults manage their own emotions well and remain calm, listen to children’s concerns, speak kindly and reassure them.
While this year’s transition back to school is different, we can help children feel optimistic by listening to and validating their worries, teaching them coping strategies, reviewing safety protocols and supporting them when they find things difficult. Ultimately, our kids need us to lead the way for a successful back-to-school transition and to develop the lifelong skills they need for navigating challenges. Here are a few additional resources to help support you during this transition.
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