How to Support Children at the Start of This School Year
Five strategies for success.
Posted September 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- COVID-19 adds an extra layer of complexity to a new school year, but kids already feel uncertainty about adapting to new people and routines.
- Modeling self-compassion can help kids feel they can do the same when they need to.
- Talking to kids about their feelings, preparing them for the transition, and teaching them how to stay safe will help them adapt.
Written by guest author and SelfWorks therapist, Megan Lothian LMSW
The start of a new school year brings a range of mixed feelings for parents, schools, and students. COVID-19 adds an extra layer of uncertainty and complexity to this time. Our children and teenagers are adapting to new routines, new people, and new academic and social challenges. While there is no blueprint on how to navigate these unchartered waters, the American Psychoanalytic Association does a great job breaking down age-appropriate related worries and concerns, and considerations for both children and parents1.
I hear from a lot of parents that they feel at a loss about how to help their child or teen manage their worries. Here are five strategies you can rely on to ensure your child feels supported and has the resources to keep working toward their social, emotional, and academic goals.
Self-compassion is key. Modeling an attitude of non-judgment, acceptance, and warmth will allow children to be tolerant of their trial and errors, and bounce back more quickly from setbacks.
When children see us being compassionate with ourselves, it helps them to feel as though they too can do the same, and feel safer and calmer as they adapt. This may also look like setting aside some time to figure out what self-care practices align best with yourself and your family, e.g., family dinners, bike rides, quiet time reading or meditating, music, dance parties, baking—anything that generally fosters closeness and joy.
Open up the conversation
Open up the conversation with your child about the transition back to school. How are they feeling about it? What do they imagine it may be like? Do they have aspects they feel nervous or scared about? Excited about? Are there activities or experiences they feel like they are missing out on, and thus upset about?
Giving your child the space to share their perspective about this return to school will be crucial in them feeling like it’s OK to have feelings about this and other difficult transitions in general—and even more OK to have conflicted emotions. One fun way to open a conversation for elementary-aged children on COVID-19 is an activity book. The CDC has a 20-page informative, yet age-appropriate, free printable coloring book.2
Visualize and prepare
Prepare your child for some of the changes that they may experience this school year. This could look like talking about the ways in which school may be different (e.g., desks far apart from each other, teachers maintaining physical distance, socializing differently than usual with peers and friends, etc.). Knowing what to expect in terms of commuting to school, school day hours, and afterschool activities and commitments may help in easing some of the anticipatory anxiety. This could also look like walking your kid or teen through their schedule, and perhaps even with some children, it could be helpful to physically practice going to their school.
Doing this visually may look like making a calendar somewhere in your home of your child’s weekly schedule when school starts or updating your teenager’s calendar with them. “Preparation” may also include taking time to talk through assessing certain social situations with your child/teen, and how to handle setting appropriate boundaries based on how your child and your family as a whole feels in terms of safety.
Talk about safety
Kids are very much aware of the danger COVID-19 poses and want to contribute to doing their part to keep everyone safe. Sharing information directly from the CDC or The World Health Organization, both nonbiased, science-based sources for information on COVID-19, can help to prevent children from accidentally seeing scary, often dramatized headlines. Following necessary safety precautions, such as wearing masks in public, receiving vaccinations when available, appropriately socially distancing, and avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated areas can give children some sense of control in a time where a lack of control is ever-present.
A 2020 study by Nadeak, Naibaho, and Silalahi found that following recommended safety precautions related to COVID-19, as well as consuming information from trusted sources, decreased levels of anxiety among older students.3
Keep the conversation going
Many kids have trouble spontaneously voicing their inner thoughts and feelings. Parents know their kids best, and with a little attention, can pick up on times and situational factors that lend themselves to more vulnerable conversations. Perhaps your child talks more in the morning after a good night's sleep or is more comfortable talking one-on-one without siblings around.
Set aside some time to check in about how the transition back to school is going. What has been difficult? Surprising? Is there anything in particular that your child is struggling with and would it be helpful to think about more together? If your child is struggling, can you come up with a plan together of how to help? It can be helpful to identify a trusted point of contact at your child’s school if they are needing extra support this year and to check if your school has any systems in place to provide mental health services.
You've got this
In sum, you don't need to have all the answers to help your child. Parents do a lot by being present and being kind, curious, and noncritical listeners. This paves the way for resilient children to actively problem-solve, manage ongoing worry, and adapt to new situations.
3. Nadeak, B., Naibaho, L., & Silalahi, M. (2020). International journal of innovation, creativity and change. COVID-19 and Students’ Anxiety Management. https://doi.org/10.53333/ijicc2013
4. How to talk to younger kids about changes this school year. Connecticut Children's. (2021, July 9). Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.connecticutchildrens.org/back-to-school/how-to-talk-to-youn…
5. Self-Care for kids by Age: Everything you need to know. ChildSavers. (2021, August 18). Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.childsavers.org/self-care-for-kids-by-age/.