School might look different during the pandemic, but here are tips from experts to help you and your child navigate the new normal.

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Going back to school usually brings a mix of joy, nerves, and excitement. But now the milestone invokes a new set of emotions, especially if students are returning to in-person instruction for the first time since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic came to America

Many children will be thrilled for structure, friends, and normalcy—but others may fear their return to the outside world because it could now possibly make them sick. With so many unknowns during this unprecedented time, it's important to establish age-appropriate open communication with your children. Here's some expert-backed advice to help you navigate it.

Rear View Of Girl With Backpack
Credit: Kiattisak Lamchan/EyeEm/Getty Images

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? Are you thinking about anything?" This will open up the lines of communication with your child, letting you see their thoughts and concerns. You can guide the conversation, answer their questions, and speak about what they've learned from television and social media.

It's also completely fine if your children don't have any questions. "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." 

Make sure to start conversations early enough to make a difference. "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 look like, talk to your children about it. "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 the 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." If kids can picture what the school year will bring, their fears might somewhat alleviate.  

You should also talk about safety changes kids 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. 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 some information and pictures of them, 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.

Offer Reassurance

Just like you, your child probably has concerns about returning to school—and you should never try to downplay them. "Don't try to ignore it; recognize it," says Dr. Ravin. Validate their emotions and let them know it's totally normal to feel scared or nervous. You can also help your child through these overwhelming moments by modeling good behaviors together, such as practicing mindfulness activities, eating right, getting enough rest, and enjoying the fresh air outside.

The reassurances also shouldn't end once school starts. If allowed, add a family photo or a special object to your child's backpack to keep them calm when they're away from home. Make a point to create more family time after school to provide additional support until your child feels comfortable in their new routine.

Most importantly, it's critical to remind your child (and yourself) that their school will do everything possible to keep students safe—and the small safety measures your kid takes will also make a difference.