How to Help Your Kids Adjust When They Go Back to Daycare and School After COVID-19
With stay-at-home orders lifting and daycares and schools around the U.S. beginning to reopen, here's how to ease your child's anxiety and help them transition back to a pre-pandemic schedule after being at home with you 24/7.
From the moment he wakes up at 6:30 a.m. until I put him back in his crib for a nap and then bedtime around 7:30 p.m., my toddler is either with me or my husband. We're together while he plays, while we eat, while I'm working, as we go on the hundredth walk around the block, and, yes, he even follows me into the bathroom. Sound familiar?
During the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, more than 2 million people were diagnosed with COVID-19 and families across the U.S. bunkered down, taking on distance learning, working from home, and surviving life together—under one roof—around the clock. Now that parts of the country are reopening, how do we prepare to send our kids back out into the world and get them used to being away from their parents again—possibly for the first time in months?
"Children [have] become accustomed to seeing their parents more and knowing they are home," says Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health who has noticed separation anxiety behaviors actually reducing in a number of her clients who are home since the quarantine began. "The increased level of attention and time given by parents working from home feels really good; this has become their new norm, establishing an expectation that this is how things will be all the time. Defying these expectations in too abrupt manner can be jolting for many kids, as parent attention is the most reinforcing 'currency' for children."
For kids who have a harder time responding to change, and especially for younger kids—typically between 18 months and 3 years old—who are more prone to separation anxiety, Dr. Berry says that "the fear-inducing trigger of separation may be especially tough. Children with separation anxiety may be more likely to avoid going to school and may refuse to go back."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7.1 percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of 3 and 17—that's about 4.4 million—have been diagnosed with anxiety. For these kids, getting back to daycare or school may be difficult, and they might experience something similar to the "Sunday Scaries" adults get.
"Some kids—particularly ones with anxiety—have become 'too comfortable' with the option of learning online," says Dr. Berry. "When anxious youngsters know that an option for an 'out' exists, they’ll often seek it out and persist until they get their way."
Although Dr. Berry expects to see more challenges for nursery school kids than for older kids and teens who typically desire more independence, there is hope to transition kids outside of the home and away from parents again—and many schools are already planning for it.
"When we go back to school it is going to be a mixed bag of kids who will pick up where they left off, be resilient, and easily transition back with the expectations and routines," says Christina Ko, a first grade teacher in New York City who's been teaching her students virtually from Long Island—with a toddler at home and a baby on the way. "However, a lot will need time to slowly transition back into 'school mode' and work on separating from their parents. Because of this, we have already established that the first couple weeks of school we are going to have to address the trauma that they have faced in the last school year, spend more time on social/emotional learning, and slow down the academic instruction."
With schools already planning for your kids to return, there are expert-approved ways you can also prepare for them to get back to their "normal" lives again.
How to Get Your Kids Ready to Go Back to Daycare or School
Follow your pre-pandemic routine.
Cookies for breakfast, pajamas until lunchtime, and screens all day? To help your kids adjust back to school or daycare you'll want to mimic whatever you were doing before COVID-19 at least two weeks before before school starts—or before you plan to send your child back to daycare. That means waking up at your normal time, getting dressed, and eating breakfast as usual. No need to worry about lesson plans or trying to catch your child up before September.
"I wouldn't stress too much on the academics portion because it might cause more stress on the kids and the parents," says Ko, who's been teaching for nearly a decade. "That is what a teacher is for and they will support the kid in those areas once school starts up again."
Say goodbye, if you can.
To follow through with your school routine, you might want to start practicing saying goodbye and leaving the house—or even going into another room to work—if you can get someone else to watch your child.
"Parents working from home have inadvertently, due to the circumstances, established a precedent in which the parent is home and more available—at least in theory—and likely giving more attention than when the parent was working outside of the home," says Dr. Berry, who recommends talking to your child before leaving, emphasizing that you will come back, and minimizing reassurance, which can actually backfire and reinforce the anxiety.
For older kids, "One check-in by text is OK, but contact in general should be limited. Agree on the number of contacts and exceptions to the rule, such as in the case of a true emergency, beforehand," she says.
If you're not able to physically leave, you can start practicing giving your child more time for independent play to have them get used to solo time.
For Ko, "the most important thing is to have conversations with your kids about how they are feeling, validate those feelings, and [discuss] how they can cope with these negative feelings once they are back in school." This can include reading books about their feelings or about being back at school.
Dr. Berry agrees, emphasizing just how important acknowledging how challenging transitioning to back to "normal” can be for your kids. "Expressing that it is OK for a child to feel what they are feeling is the most valuable message a parent can convey to them in this time," she stresses. "This needs to be balanced with an expectation that the child will continue to expose themselves to challenging situations."
Along with this, Dr. Berry suggests establishing rewards (think sticker charts or a favorite treat) for effort and to increase motivation in addition to vocalizing your confidence in your kids, even if you're a bit on edge yourself.
Remember: Kids are resilient—they might adjust faster than you think!