How to Help Children Navigate Back-to-School Debates

Using teachable moments at home to support emotional safety about school return.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

Given the seemingly endless media frenzy around the back-to-school debates, I can imagine that conversations in most homes have been pretty stressful lately. At least I know they have been in my house as we await – sometimes not so patiently — the final plans for our two college students and one high schooler. It’s been really hard not to get swept up by the very strong and often opposing opinions, and I certainly don’t envy any school leader charged with making these difficult reopening decisions.

As I step back from all of the adult flurry, however, I wonder about the unintended impact on our children. We have already heard lots about the potential, and perhaps likely, negative impact on mental health and emotional well-being that children face, given disruption to typical routines and social connections. In addition, many children are coping with more serious challenges, from worrying about their loved ones’ or accessing basic needs such as meals or stable internet.  

We have a lot to be worried about as adults, but at the center of what is going on in our heads should be how we are talking about back-to-school with our children. Our children take many cues from what we say and how we act. They need our help to process this pandemic, including decisions on returning to school. We cannot change the situation, but we can change how we teach children to react by using teachable moments – or unexpected situations that provide opportunities to engage their interest and help them learn how to process challenges.

Richelieu/Pexels
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: Richelieu/Pexels

As an example, let’s take a media announcement about yet another revision to school reopening plans. An adult could either say: “Here we go again – another bad decision by those schools” or, alternatively, “Hmm, I wonder why the change was made. Let’s look at the reasons and talk about how that fits or doesn’t fit for our family.” In the latter response, the moment is used to include the child in the conversation in a way that can give meaning to the situation. Doing so helps the child understand the situation: Even if they can’t change the ultimate decision, the conversation can provide them with a sense of control. Both understanding and control are important for fostering an emotionally safe environment.

These sorts of teachable moments are important to supporting emotional safety about the back-to-school decision for each family as we each are facing very different issues: There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We live in different communities and have different personal factors that influence conversations about our preferred and ultimately chosen format for back-to-school. 

My family is fortunate to be living in a community with current low incidence of COVID-19, and we do not have family members who have underlying physical health concerns. As a school psychologist, I also know that ninth grade is critically important for the future trajectory of our incoming high schooler; this year is a big transition that requires building new peer and adult connections as well as learning to navigate greater responsibility. In our home, we talk about the options that our district is presenting for what school could look like. We make sure that our high schooler is involved in asking questions as we discuss various pros and cons. For us, the decision to start school in-person to establish the foundation for those initial connections and strategies makes sense, even knowing that an in-person situation will be different and may shift over time. In the end, the choice is not what is important, but rather the process in which we are trying to engage to make the best of a situation that does not have a single best solution. 

As we each move closer to the reopening dates for schools in our communities, I encourage you to consider how you can best include your children in these decisions. You can help provide a sense of understanding and control. Including children in these conversations also offers an opportunity to check in about how they are feeling, and might bring up a need to strengthen emotional safety. Children need that as much as we adults do.

References

Allensworth, E. (2017, September 25). Why is ninth grade a critical time for students? Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/blog/why-ninth-grade-critical-time-students/.

Chafouleas, S. M., Koriakin, T. A., Iovino, E. A., Bracey, J., & Marcy, H. M. (2020, July). Responding to COVID-19: Simple Strategies that Anyone Can Use to Foster an Emotionally Safe School Environment. Storrs, Connecticut: University of Connecticut. Retrieved from https://csch.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2206/2020/07/CSCH-Report-Responding-to-COVID-19-Simple-Strategies-7-6-20.pdf.

Morin, A. (2019, June 4). Teachable Moments and Your Child. Retrieved from https://www.verywellfamily.com/what-are-teachable-moments-2086537.