The 2020-2021 school year will look different this year, but here are tips from experts to help you and your child navigate the new normal.

By Jerisha Parker Gordon
July 06, 2020
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Going back to school each fall usually brings a mix of joy, nerves, and excitement. But the upcoming school year will invoke a new set of emotions—especially if students return to school, for the first time since March, in some capacity amid coronavirus.

Many children will be thrilled if they are able to return to the classroom for structure, friends, and normalcy. While others may fear their return to the outside world and the closeness they previously enjoyed with their peers because it could now possibly make them sick.

With so many unknowns during this unprecedented time, children and their parents are experiencing a range of feelings that may not go away but can certainly be eased with age-appropriate open communication.

Get the Conversation Started

When discussing the coronavirus with your child and the possible return to in-person instruction, make sure to consider their age and what they already know. "We always recommend asking an open-ended question," says Karen Ann Ravin, M.D., division chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.

Dr. Ravin suggests short questions like, "Do you have questions about going back to school in the fall? Are you thinking about anything?" This will help open up the lines of communication with your child to see where their head is and what, if any, concerns they have. You can guide the conversation, answer their questions, and speak to what they've learned from television and social media.

You might be surprised to learn that your kids don't have questions or concerns at all and that's OK. "Some people feel like they have to discuss it because of their own anxieties," says Dr. Ravin, "when maybe their kid isn't ready to talk about it."

But it's still necessary to keep the conversation flowing since in-person instruction may take place in some capacity. "Open up dialogue several weeks prior to school starting with your child. Especially for younger school-aged kids, use words they can understand, and keep your phrases simple," shares Yesenia Marroquin, Ph.D., psychologist within the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Let Kids Know What to Expect

Once you learn what school will be like this fall, it's important for children to know what they can expect. "Outline, as best as you can, what their new daily routine will be, and how drop off and pick up will go. This is especially important for kids just starting school for first time," says Dr. Marroquin.

Dr. Ravin agrees. "Finding out the most you can about what the school has planned so you can prepare your kids—and yourself—for it is key." Just having an idea of what the fall will look like, can alleviate fears your child may have.

This includes talking to them about safety changes they will experience, such as potentially wearing face masks all day, just like their teachers, as well as social distancing measures inside and outside of the classroom. You can also practice washing your hands together and applying hand sanitizer as this will be an even bigger part of their daily routine.

And if you know who your child's teacher will be, share that with them and a picture if you can. Being able to put a name to a face can help ease their minds.

If your kid is still leery after all of the preparation, ask for help. "If you notice your child is particularly anxious, or has a history of having a very challenging time with summer to school transitions, consider contacting your child's school to ask how they can help facilitate your child's transition back to school," suggests Dr. Marroquin.

Reassure Them

Just as you will have concerns about sending your child back to school, make sure to also listen to your child's fear. "Don't try to ignore it, recognize it," says Dr. Ravin. Validate their emotions and let them know it's totally OK to feel scared or nervous.

You can also help your child through these overwhelming moments by modeling good behaviors together like enjoying mindfulness activities, making sure you're eating right, getting enough rest, and enjoying the fresh air outside together whenever possible.

And find ways to keep reassuring them once school starts. If allowed, add a family photo or a small special object to your child's backpack so they can have to keep calm when they're away from home. You can also make it a point to create more family time after school, if your schedule permits, to provide additional support until your child feels comfortable in their new routine.

Most importantly, it's critical to remind your child (and yourself!), their school will do everything it can to keep everyone safe—and the small safety measures your kid takes will also be making a difference.

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