Back to School … Back to Normal? Not Just Yet.

Back to School 2021.jpg

By Megan Dormin, LPC


The 2020-21 school year was a roller-coaster ride for school-age kids and their parents. From remote classrooms and online assignments to masks and social distancing, schools adapted … often repeatedly. As back-to-school season approaches, many parents are wondering what the 2021-22 school year might have in store. While the Delta variant makes its presence known, vaccinations for kids under 12 years old are still awaiting FDA approval. Unless mandated by schools, parents will be left to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children.

Transitions can be challenging for students, even under “normal” circumstances. While the return to in-person school activities might be exciting for some children, it may also elicit fear and anxiety in others. Many fall somewhere in the middle, juggling a mixed bag of emotions.

Related: Teens and Transitions: How to Help Your Adolescent Navigate Change

How can parents support their kids as they prepare to head back to school? This year, especially, expecting the unexpected and being ready to roll with the ever-changing COVID safety guidelines will be critical to navigating the transition. By modeling this flexibility, you’re showing your kids that change is a) part of life and b) manageable.

The following strategies can help parents prepare for their return to school in times marked by uncertainty:

  • Keep up with the latest official reports and recommendations. Since children are likely going to be the largest unvaccinated population for the foreseeable future, containing the spread of the virus as they head back to school is critical. The Families & Children page of the CDC website is frequently updated with new developments and guidelines for mask usage, COVID screening and vaccinations for children.

  • Meet your child where they are in the process — even if their feelings do not match up with your own. Remember that every child (even within the same household) is unique and may have different feelings about the transition back to school. 

  • Prepare for potential emotional volatility. During the height of the pandemic, most kids were involved in remote learning. For many students (and parents) that translated into greater flexibility to work from the comfort of their bedrooms, head to the kitchen at will, and wear uber comfy clothes from morning to night.

    While seeing their friends in person might feel exciting, kids will also have to come to terms with more rigid (albeit “normal” school day schedules). Be ready for kids coming home from school exhausted and potentially a bit crabby. Support and validate their feelings. Consider offering them more flexibility with their schedules at home time for the first few weeks or even months of school to allow them to feel some sense of control as their world radically changes.

  • Show grace for different learning styles and paces. Remote learning was a blessing for some children just as it was a curse for others. For kids with learning differences or social anxiety, having the opportunity to control their learning space, take a break from the classroom, walk around without peers noticing, and take tests in a completely quiet and lower-stress environment was a welcome respite. For these students, the shift back to filled (and louder) classrooms might trigger a great deal of stress.

    Taking note of the accommodations that helped students and keeping the conversation open with teachers about what might still be feasible to continue could help ease the transition. On the other hand, kids that struggled to even log on to Zoom or actively participate when removed from the classroom setting might benefit from the switch to in-person learning but may struggle to adjust to the rigors of in-person school once again.

  • Give them tools to manage social and/or reentry anxiety. While some children may be clamoring to see other peers and (re)build social connections, others may be horrified at the idea of entering the classroom and having what seems like ‘all eyes on them.’

    Kids might need additional practice reaching out, making friends, sharing toys, and interacting with groups in general after so much time away from these activities. If your child seems anxious about socializing, do some role-playing at home to give them an opportunity to rehearse interactions with their peers.

  • Don’t try to pour from an empty cup. Kids have incredible emotional radar, allowing them to pick up on your fears and anxieties. Be aware of ways in which the changes over the past school year and uncertainties around the current school year are impacting you. Find healthy ways to manage your own emotions during their transition back to school and throughout these uncertain times.

  • Maintain an ongoing, age-appropriate dialogue. At any age (included in adulthood), the best way to combat fear is through understanding. Let your kids know they can come to you with questions about COVID. Your willingness to discuss the pandemic makes it a less scary or taboo topic. Reassure your families that taking proper precautions (like frequently washing hands and wearing masks) will help protect them and those they care about.

    Related: How to Talk to Kids About COVID-19

  • Find the silver lining.  Having more time together as a family, scaling back our hectic, busy schedules and forming deeper bonds with people we live with were all silver linings of last year’s quarantines. Helping kids take a “glass-half-full” perspective can teach them to practice gratitude even throughout difficult periods in their lives. One child-friendly activity to teach gratitude is to ask each family member to share three things they’re thankful for each night at the dinner table. Everyone gets a turn!

As with any change or transition in your child’s life, recognize when to reach out for help. While some anxiety, frustration, and irritation as they transition back to school is normal, it’s important to realize when your child might benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor. You know your child best. If you notice that they are experiencing signs of depression (lack of motivation, increase or decrease in appetite, anger, feelings of hopelessness) or displaying intense anxiety that is debilitating or impacting multiple areas of life (e.g., eating, sleeping or socializing) for longer than a few weeks it may be time to involve a professional to help them — and/or you — work through some of these difficulties.

 

It’s OK to ask for help. 

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

If you’re interested in learning more about psychotherapy for your child or adolescent — or  parenting support for yourself — please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

 

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