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Back to School During COVID-19

How parents can support their children through uncertain times.

Source: Pixabay

The end of summer often brings the back-to-school jitters, but this year, there will undoubtedly be an extra layer of concern due to COVID-19.

Families have the opportunity to prepare their kids for this new “first,” starting now. Getting back school—whether online, in-person, at home, or a hybrid model—could come with different challenges for different families. There is no single clear right answer for all, and parents are working hard to assess what’s right for their child and circumstances.

Whatever route parents take this year, there are some common ways to help children cope and adjust as well as possible given these challenging circumstances.

Some kids doing home or online schooling may be relieved by not having to get up as early or face some of the social pressures of the schoolyard. Others may be disappointed to miss out on seeing friends or worried about the tensions that can arise between parent and child when trying to navigate coursework together.

Some kids going back to school in person will need very little preparation. They may already be excited to see their friends and teachers, and may welcome these new opportunities for structure and connection. These children will just need some guidance about the new practices, like social distancing in school, not sharing food, and the points of hand hygiene. Those who are more anxious or cautious are likely to need a little extra support.

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, stomachaches, getting irritable or acting totally fine and then refusing to go, to log-on, or to start working on that long-anticipated first day.

If your child has been hesitant in the past around back-to-school, here are a few things to keep in mind for this year:

1. Kids sense the overall tension in their surroundings, even if they aren’t yet old enough to fully understand the pandemic. Witnessing arguments between caregivers or groups of parents can fuel the child’s anxiety further.

2. When there’s more stress, kids may “cling” more or act more “helpless,” because you are their sense of safety in the world. They likely won’t need extra support for long, but they may need it more in the first days this year, just like kindergarten again.

3. Kids need to know the plan. Just like adults going back to the workplace, kids need to know the concrete steps being taken to minimize risk and what they can do to protect themselves. Just like adults working from home, they benefit from some quiet where possible, and opportunities to connect socially in different ways. Reassurance alone that “it will all be OK” often isn’t enough for kids prone to anxiety.

4. 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.

5. If your child struggles that first week, don’t give up! Unless the public health recommendations change or you decide as a parent that the plan should change, don’t let your child’s distress dictate the family plan. Most kids will settle into the routine when parents and caregivers stay the course.

If you plan to return your child to in-person school, having some safe playdates (even virtual) through the remainder of the summer will keep those connections fresh in the child’s mind, and usually, the anticipation of seeing friends helps overcome anxiety. Thinking about a classmate who may need support and figuring out ways to help them may also decrease anxiety. There may still be resistance to even these small steps, and that’s where attending to your child’s emotions can help forge a way through.

Imagine you’ve done what you can ahead of time, but on the first morning of school, your child announces: “I’m not going!”

It’s hard to resist answering with: “Of course you are!” or “C’mon it will be fun!” Typically, an anxious child will dig their heels in further. Getting through the wall of resistance is much easier when we can pause to build a bridge to what our child may be thinking and feeling. In this case, it might be clear that the child is worried about exposure to COVID, or not getting a teacher they like or just being separated from home after so much time. We’ve found that 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.

When your child says “I’m not going,” you might say, “I don’t blame you for not wanting to go to school, because there’s going to be a new process, and because you’ve been so cozy at home all summer, and because you’re not sure if the other kids will follow the new rules.”

As you put their concerns into words, anxious kids recognize they aren’t alone with their worries, and that’s already half the battle. This approach may help them get out the door, but if not, then providing both emotional and practical support may be needed.

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 or giving a ride to a teen for whom taking transit on the first day would just push the anxiety level through the roof. The specifics will always depend on you and your child.

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. It may be messy, it may be hard, and 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.

For more on related topics, check out our new book: What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers, where we expand on these ideas and show how to put them into action for many of the most common and challenging parenting struggles with kids and tweens. A portion of the proceeds will go to Mom2Mom Charity.

More from Ashley Miller, M.D., and Adele Lafrance Ph.D.
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