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What Kids Heading Back-to-School Need

Protective factors for kids as they start another uncertain school year.

Key points

  • School districts and parents across the country are focused on keeping children safe as they head back to school this fall.
  • Every child has harder-to-see strengths and vulnerabilities that will shape their learning and wellbeing.
  • It is essential to prioritize protective measures that buffer kids from toxic stress and prepare them to navigate life's challenges.
Muneer Ahmed ok/Unsplash
Source: Muneer Ahmed ok/Unsplash

School districts and parents across the country are focused on keeping children safe as they head back to school. These conversations are essential as we do everything to protect our kids’ health and learning through the pandemic. While evident and politically divisive measures like masks or distancing dominate the headlines, there are additional essential protections that kids need as we embark on another uncertain school year.

Whether they have a mask in their backpack or not, every child brings harder-to-see strengths and vulnerabilities that will shape their learning and well-being. Let’s name and prioritize the protective measures that can buffer kids from the worst impacts of toxic stress and prepare them to navigate the challenges ahead. Perhaps most importantly, let’s create and sustain systems that don’t leave these protections up to chance.

The Power of Relationships

We only studied what was faulty in kids' lives who were known to experience adversity for a long time. Over the recent decades, we’ve started asking what goes right in the lives of those same kids. A clear factor emerged when we looked for the positive childhood experiences that protect kids from poor outcomes: connectedness. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the single most common factor for developing resilience is at least one warm and committed relationship with an adult.

Strong relationships alone will not solve all problems, nor are they substitutes for building equitable systems that support kids and families. But relationships are the active ingredient that potential solutions can’t do without.

What does that mean for us this fall? This might ensure that students are treated with unconditional positive regard at school and that their strengths and capacities are the anchors of connection.

At home, this means staying connected with our kids through stressful times. Let’s be clear that connection with our kids doesn’t mean Instagram-ready perfection or forced positivity. Fun and happiness are parts of connection but aren’t the sum of it. Instead, a connection is communicating that we are on the same team in the face of a challenge. It’s avoiding power struggles and battles when we are setting boundaries. It’s communicating to kids that our relationships can handle their big feelings, even when messy and overwhelming.

A Need to Belong

We’ve spent nearly eighteen months figuring out creative ways to be physically distanced yet socially connected. But our social needs are not met by just being in proximity to others, and our fundamental need is to belong.

A sense of belonging in our schools, families, communities, and groups has been linked to better stress management, stronger relationships, higher levels of motivation and achievement, and greater feelings of happiness and optimism. The opposite feeling of not belonging puts people at higher risk of mental illness, poor physical health, and hopelessness.

The challenge is that belonging isn’t measured by simply participating in activities like eating dinner together as a family, showing up to school, or signing up for a group. Belonging is measured by how we feel about ourselves and others once we get there.

While many often think about belonging in early adolescence, even very young children start to ask questions like, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Just take it from Mister Rogers, who knew how important it was for children to know that “I like you just the way you are.”

We don’t do kids any favors by ignoring what makes them who they are. Kids deserve to feel included and valued because of, not despite, their identities, histories, and experiences. From early childhood through adolescence, kids need us to consistently communicate through policy and practice (“Your whole self is welcome here”).

Coping With Uncertainty

There are plenty of feelings and worries–large and small–that present themselves for kids, parents, and educators alike that can obstruct the ability to connect and problem-solve together.

It can be tempting to respond to kids’ concerns with either heavy reassurance or by taking over completely. Psychotherapist and anxiety expert Lynne Lyons argues that when it comes to worrying, we would be much better off helping our kids “roll around with the uncertainty and go with the mights and maybes” than trying to persuade kids that everything will always be great and one hundred percent predictable. For example, distinguishing between things that are good to know, like basic routines, teacher assignments, or safety measures, and things that we can’t know or need to learn about as we go.

Acknowledging uncertainty doesn’t mean promoting chaos or ignoring sources of toxic stress, far from it. It is about acknowledging and naming emotions, breaking big and overwhelming tasks into more manageable parts, and learning and practicing skills to move through them. As Lyons reminds us, “The opposite of anxiety isn’t a certainty [it] is tolerating uncertainty.” Learning to tolerate (appropriate levels of) uncertainty involves everything from externalizing worry to practicing stress recovery skills to participating in collective solutions to our concerns.

Fostering Empathy

We all hope that our children grow into compassionate, courageous, and empathetic adults. We may not struggle to agree in our nation right now, but there seems to be a consensus that raising caring children is a worthy goal.

However, as the saying goes, “Hope is not a plan.” Even before the current divisions we are navigating, Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project highlighted a “rhetoric/reality gap” regarding empathy and caring. The report found that nearly eighty percent of youth think their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than helping others.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with achievement and happiness. Nonetheless, part of growing up is learning how to respond when these interests collide with the needs of others. Empathy is one of the core “pro-social skills” that enable young people to build community across differences, navigate ethical challenges, and put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters.

Empathy is a work in progress from childhood through adolescence, and kids need us to model and nurture courageous empathy now more than ever.

Play. Rest. Repeat.

While this is a sober and serious time on many levels, we cannot ignore the activities that bring us joy and help us recharge. Indeed, as stress piles on, we risk sidelining things like play and rest when we need them most. While most people acknowledge that little kids need to play, too often, it takes a back seat as we grow up. The evidence is clear that play is not a frivolous diversion from the things that matter most. Instead, all of us benefit from play. Play and playful interactions build connections, brainpower and protect our mental health. Play can fuel our engagement with each other and the world, not distract from it.

Navigating the pandemic and coping with uncertainty is a marathon, not a sprint. So let’s double down on our toolkit for recovery and recharge. Let’s prioritize play and rest. Not as a retreat from the world–but to sustain our capacity to engage with it.

Keep Going, Keep Growing

This is far from an exhaustive list of the protections our kids deserve as they head into the school year. But with the recent discussion of mandates, this is a powerful time to consider the additional measures that set all kids up for a healthy and safe year of learning during COVID-19 and beyond. Kids need parents and teachers on the same team as we enter another unpredictable school year. Let’s work to prioritize mandates for connection, belonging, and navigating these high levels of uncertainty together.


Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3).

Hays-Grudo, J., & Morris, A. S. (2020). Adverse and protective childhood experiences: A developmental perspective. American Psychological Association.

: National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper 13.

Allen, K., & Bowles, T. (2012). Influences on belonging in secondary school settings: a meta-analysis. In Educational and Developmental Psychology Conference 2012.