As kids enjoy their Summer vacation, schools are already focused on the next school year. The 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused significant changes to how children received instruction, catapulting many students and teachers into the world of online learning for the first time and without an adequate amount of time to prepare.
This Fall, we expect more changes. Though many students have returned to in-person learning close to the end of the school year, hundreds were still learning fully online for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. It is not too soon for these families to start thinking about how adapting to yet more changes will affect children’s mental health. Though specific plans for returning to school for in-person instruction in the Fall will vary by individual school districts, parents can take advantage of the Summer break to start preparing their children emotionally to return to school.
I was recently interviewed by Liam Collings for WITN on how parents can help prepare their children emotionally to return to school.
Soon after, I received several emails from concerned parents looking for specific strategies they can use to help their children have a smoother transition back to the classroom. As one parent put it, “My daughter struggled a lot moving to online learning and now that she finally got used to it, we are going back. She is worried that her friends won’t remember her and she will feel lost”. Another email read: “My kids are really struggling with the back and forth. They don’t do change very well”. With so many concerned parents in our community, I decided to compile my top 5 tips for how parents and caregivers can help their children be ready for the Fall.
1- Start a conversation
Talk to your child before and during the adjustment period to make sure they feel supported. Your child may be fine at home, but that does not mean they don’t have questions or concerns. Set aside some time to ask questions and engage your child in casual conversations about transitioning back to in-person learning. Listen attentively, without interrupting them, and validate their emotions being careful not to minimize or dismiss how they feel.
2- Avoid leading questions
Instead of asking your child if they are scared or anxious about returning to school, ask open-ended questions. For example, “What are you looking forward to the most?” and “What do you miss about school?”.
3- Manage your expectations
It is important for parents not to assume that returning to school will be an easy transition because they were attending school in person before the Spring of 2020. Transitioning back is still a form of change and many children may not be emotionally ready to navigate without support. While many children may adjust well, they may also have bad days. This brings us to tip number four.
4- Keep an eye on changes in behavior
It is common for children to have a delayed reaction to changes or stressors. As weeks go by, keep an eye out for declining grades, poor behavior at school, like getting in fights or being disruptive in class. At home, these reactions can be in the form of changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or even avoiding activities related to school such as doing homework. If your child continues to struggle after three or four weeks, or their behavior worsens, it may be time to consult with one of our child therapists. Seeking the help of a therapist for your child does not mean that there is something wrong with them. Working with a therapist is a collaborative process where you and your child can learn strategies to address difficult behaviors and coping skills for anxiety, stress, and adjustment difficulties.
5- Start their school routine early and stick with it
It’s no secret that children thrive in structured environments. Routines help your child know what to expect and to feel safe. At least one week before school starts, begin transitioning to a more structured routine, with a set bedtime. For children who already struggle with anxiety, and for those who may be going to a new school after a long year of virtual learning, driving to their school a few days before the beginning of the new school year and, if possible, doing a walk-through at the school may also be helpful. This type of gradual exposure, often used in Exposure Therapy, can help alleviate anxiety and worry little by little before your child is fully immersed in the school environment.
Keep in mind that it’s ok to not have all the answers. If your child asks a question for which you do not have the answer, it’s ok to say you don’t know. By modeling to your child that it’s ok to be unsure about what it will be like to be back at school, you are showing them that they don’t need to feel inadequate if they don’t have all the answers. We are
all learning how to adapt to these changes together, day by day.
Priscila Norris, LCSW, RYT.
Thrivemind Counseling and Wellness
Owner, Psychotherapist, Yoga Teacher