Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Ways to Weather "Back to School" in Uncertain Times

A few intentional actions can help the fall feel manageable.

Matt Ragland/Unsplash
Source: Matt Ragland/Unsplash

This back to school season is different from any other. With many schools uncertain about the ability to offer in person instruction, families are dealing with the challenges that come with constantly changing plans. As we cope with the uncertainty, many parents find themselves somewhere on the continuum of hyper-planning to denial. Neither of these extremes offers families the kind of grounded flexibility and preparedness that will help them navigate these next weeks healthfully.

Recognizing the difference between homeschooling and distance learning can be helpful as we work to get our heads around the stress involved in this time. When a family makes the decision to home school, they also adopt the freedom to schedule their schooling in whatever way works best for their family. This is not the case with distance learning where the instructional schedule is set by the school/teacher. This means that parents who are facilitating distance learning are more manager and coordinator than educator, facilitating the adoption of an entirely new system live within the pre-existing family sphere. Many are doing this while also doing vocational work from home or while working away from home. The challenges are many.

It can help us to be gracious with ourselves to remember that we are navigating the complex needs and schedules of several people within the sphere of our ongoing family rhythms and norms. This awareness can help us put into perspective the reality that we are unlikely to do this school semester perfectly. Making a plan that accounts for this truth, centered in the belief that “good enough” is both good and enough, can keep us grounded as we take on the Herculean task of living and parenting in this time.

The following actions can help us with this plan.

1. Develop a flexibility and self-care practice (for yourself and your children).

When we feel out of control, it’s easy to grasp for information, hoping it will provide us with certainty. In this particular season, this may actually hurt more than help us. Just as a sponge that is full of water can’t be effective at cleaning up a spill, when we are overwhelmed, we cannot do the work of parenting without making messes.

Stopping the habit of checking our devices for developing/changing news, taking breaks from multi-tasking, and physical actions such as deep breathing, stretching, and yoga can all help us become less reactive, thus more flexible. They also center us which serves as serious self-care.

Using mantras such as “I will do what I can with what I know” and “We will make it through this” can be helpful. Remembering that staying as emotionally regulated as we can in this time is important modeling for our children can also help. When we all look back on this time, we will remember how able we were to handle constant change without losing our ability to function, not what grade our children received in math.

2. Lay out realistic norms and routines to support them.

Every good teacher spends the first few days of a new school year setting their class up for success and setting norms for their classroom (e.g: In what way do students turn in their work? How will the class handle conflict? What is the rhythm of the day?). In order to succeed in distance learning, we’ll need to do the same.

Norms are guiding principles or goals that help us direct our attention and effort. Norms help us determine what to spend energy on and what to let go of. Routines are the behaviors we do that keep us true to the norms we set. For example, a norm would be “I want school mornings to be as smooth as possible.” The routine of packing the kids’ lunches and prepping breakfast the night before supports that norm.

Remote learning will require new norms and routines. Rather than setting the norm of everyone excelling academically, this might be the year that we set norms around our abilities to focus and regulate. Similarly, a routine that is too rigid may not support the emotional needs of dealing with this time. Work diligently to set norms that account for the unique needs of your family within the context of work and school needs and routines that reflect flexibility with predictability in balance.

3. Create zones in time and space.

When multiple people share a single space in which competing tasks are carried out, it can be difficult for everyone to get things done, let alone stay positive. It can be psychologically helpful to delineate zones for work/school, recreation, and rest in both our physical spaces and our time-based schedules.

Even if our homes are small, there are ways to mark certain spaces for work and others for recreation. This might look like each person having their own desk in some homes and sharing a table in others. If concentration is difficult for children who share a table, privacy screens can be made with science fair tri-fold cardboard. If the same table that is used for schooling must be used for meals, school-related supplies can be stashed in a bin (one for each learner) then pulled out to set up after meal time for the next day’s learning.

Recreation and rest zones should include plenty of offerings for play and relaxation. Handheld, manipulative games (such as Rush Hour), board games, paper books and magazines, building toys (Legos, Brain Flakes, magnetic tiles, or imaginative play items), as well as comfortable seating and eye-level lighting should be easily available in these spaces. If things take too long to take out or put away they are unlikely to be engaged. We must, in this season, possibly tolerate a bit more clutter for the sake of ease in stimulating our bodies and resting in healthy ways. Similarly, certain hours of the day can be “zoned” for school while other segments of time can be “zoned” for rest or recreation. At least one of these zones should be screen-free.

4. Keep coming back to the body.

Prior to the pandemic, we had relegated much of our entertainment to screens, also believing that certain digital content soothed us. With the bulk of our children’s learning migrating to these spaces, it is crucial that we provide ample opportunities for sensory stimulation and soothing. Breaks for movement, soothing, and rest are crucial even when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Fill your home with smells, sounds, and sensory opportunities during times of recreation. You’ll find these support times of study in powerful ways.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today