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Returning Back to School After a Long, Unusual Summer

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by Sarah Davies, School Psychologist


As summer ends, back-to-school jitters are common. However, this year there is an extra layer of concern due to COVID-19. While the return to school will be not only welcome but exciting for many students, others will be feeling anxious or frightened. Getting back to school - whether online, in-person, at home, or in a hybrid model - will come with unique challenges for each family. There is no single clear right answer for all and we know parents are working hard to assess what’s right for their child under their unique circumstances. Whatever route you decide to take this year, here are some tips to help your children navigate some of the complicated emotions they may be facing with going back to school.


Starting a new school year can be stressful at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Some kids doing remote learning may be relieved by not having to get up as early and like the idea of having time to eat lunch with their parents. Others may be disappointed to miss out on seeing friends or worried about the tensions that can arise between parents and children when they are trying to navigate coursework together. Some kids going back to school in-person will need very little preparation. They may be excited to see their friends and teachers and may welcome the new opportunities for structure and connection. Others may have fears about wearing masks, how they will separate from their parents without being walked to their classroom, and how they will stay physically distanced from their friends. It would be great if anxious kids could just walk up to us in early August and say: “You know, I’m a little nervous about the start of school. Can you help me with these feelings—including a plan of action?” But more often than not, it shows up the week or night before school with challenging behaviors, delay tactics at bedtime, crying, stomach aches, getting irritable or acting totally fine and then refusing to go, to log-on, or to start learning on that much-anticipated first day. 


You can make your child 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. Reassure them that it is healthy to talk about their worries and emotions and that you are here to listen. Putting their concerns into words -- even if you don’t agree -- can show you take them seriously and can help bring them to a place of increased calm. We cope with difficult moments not by changing how we feel but by learning to regulate how we feel. And regulation comes from understanding and allowing. Listening to their feelings and following up with the simple statement, “What do you need?” or “How can I help you right now?” communicates safety and resilience. Utilizing the ToolBox tools for students who are familiar with the tools can support regulation. “What tool would be helpful right now?”


Kids need to know the plan. Resilience comes from regulation, and regulation starts with understanding; we must clearly explain what's happening in a child's surroundings so she can feel safe and regulated. Reassurance alone that “it will all be OK” often isn’t enough for kids. One of the best ways to help kids have the confidence to go back to school is to show your confidence in them. This comes partly through words but mostly through actions, like helping them practice small steps of the school day process ahead of time. If you really don’t feel it’s safe for your child to return in-person, they will likely pick up on your non-verbal cues and be hesitant. If you are dreading homeschooling or online schooling, the same is true. 


Welcome these new opportunities for structure and connection. Children will need some guidance about the new practices, like social distancing in school, not sharing food, and how to drop off and pick up will be different this year. Those in remote learning need to understand how they will be included in their classes, different ways that they will have social connections, and how adults at home will be available to them. Those who are more anxious or cautious are likely to need extra support. Children may get upset or frustrated if they are finding it hard to wear masks, especially when running or playing. You can reassure your children that lots of adults are working hard to keep your family safe, but emphasize that it's important we all follow the recommended measures to take care of more vulnerable members of our community.  


Emotional support can simply be describing your confidence in your child’s ability to cope, like: “You’ve made it through some tough firsts before, and I know you can do this too.” Practical support may include things like helping your child focus on a game to play together as you walk to school. If your child will be doing online or homeschooling, you may hear something like: “I don’t want to do my work.” In this case, putting their concerns into words might sound something like: “It must be tough to have to do work together now because we’ve been mostly playing all summer because I’m your mom, not your teacher, and because work just isn’t as much fun as so many other things in the house.” Practical support, like setting clear blocks of time for school work followed by breaks for play and connection and outdoor learning times (where safe to do so) may certainly also be needed. Parents who find themselves in a dual role as educators may have to look for new ways to get at least a bit of downtime and care for themselves. Whether at home or at school, kids are really affected by the emotional climate, so time and resources put into parent and teacher well-being are extremely well spent.


Finally, and most importantly, we need to be kind to ourselves and each other through this time. This start of the new school year in the midst of a pandemic is not something any of us have done before. This school year is likely to be filled with ups and downs, changes upon changes, and a variety of emotions from kids and adults. All of us -- kids, caregivers, educators, professionals -- may need to reach out for help. Doing so will model to our kids that they can too. We must connect to ourselves with compassion, understanding, and patience before we're able to connect to our kids in this way; use these same three steps with yourself, talking to yourself about this big transition, preparing yourself for a mix of feelings, and reminding yourself what you know and don't know. And feel free to add some extra compassion by repeating these words: "This is a tough time to be a parent. I'm doing the best I can. I am doing enough. I am enough." 


Here are a few additional resources that you may find helpful: