Each year, as summer draws to a close and Labor Day approaches, parents and children across the country brace themselves for one big day: the first day of school. Mixed emotions hit everyone: excitement, anxiety, relief – there might even be some tears, whether they come from nervous little ones or parents overwhelmed with bittersweet emotion (or joy!). But this year, on top of all of this, we have to deal with something none of us have any roadmap for: returning to school after a worldwide pandemic shook up everything, including our education system, last year. Some children have already been back to in-person learning, and some haven’t, but all will probably need a reminder on how to mentally prepare for their big day this year. So how can you, as a parent, help your child get ready to climb those schoolhouse steps again?
1. Talk It Out
Normalizing open communication with your children is always a good idea, but is especially important when a big change or transition is coming up – and, for some children, a return to in-person learning (or the start of a full year back at school after a changeable pandemic year) will feel huge. Knowing that they have someone to talk to is critical for children (and teens, even if it seems like they’re just going to grunt in response!), so don’t be afraid to talk openly with them about their feelings. To get the lines of communication open:
- Start with a family meeting well before the first day of school – Give your children a safe space to share what’s on their mind, as well as get in touch with and organize their own feelings about their return to school, well before school starts. Remember to keep it balanced, and ask about what they’re excited about and looking forward to, not just what they’re worried about. You might even find that the fears you think they have are more a reflection of how you’re feeling.
- Keep communication going with daily check-ins – Quick, regular conversations that happen every day in the car, at the start of dinner, or before bed will help establish a consistent time for children to discuss what is going on in their lives, and will keep up the process of normalizing talking about their feelings.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself – Remember, this past year has been stressful for the whole family – including you! – so you might need to talk to someone, too. You need to take care of your own mental health in order to be there for your children, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a parent support group or a therapist.
2. Start a Routine Early
As chaotic as children can seem, they actually thrive on routine: it helps them feel like things are predictable, under control, and can even help foster a sense of responsibility in them if they are active parts of making their day run smoothly. For many children, last year was very disruptive to their normal routines, and it might take time for them to get back into the rhythm of things, especially if they will be returning to in-person learning for the first time this fall. But having a morning routine that starts the day in a peaceful way, as well as an afternoon routine that involves homework, activities, getting ready for the next day, and a reasonable bedtime, will be very important to get your children back on track, so start planning well before school begins and try:
- Focusing on sleep – Consider making bedtimes and wake-up times 10 minutes earlier each day as the first day of school approaches.
- Trying things out – Have a trial run of your daily routine for a week before school begins, remembering that everyone might still be getting used to commuting and being where everyone needs to be at a set time!
- Get the kiddos involved – Getting your children involved in helping with the daily routine can give them a feeling of ownership over it, which can also help ease their anxieties. For younger children, give them a chart with pictures and stickers to help them map out their day; for older children and teens, try to encourage independence by giving them their own calendar or daily planner, and asking them to prep each evening for the next day by picking out clothes, packing their lunch, or setting their own alarm, for example.
3. Create a “New School Year Resolutions” List
Last year was completely unprecedented for most people, which means that the goals and expectations that your children had for their school year (and that you had for them) might not have been met – and that’s ok! This past year and a half has been about getting by as best we can, and it will take time to get back into a relatively “normal” way of life, so don’t expect things to change overnight – routines, socializing, sleep cycles, everything will need to be adapted.
What you can do is set realistic expectations, and allow your children to do the same, while still encouraging them to be excited about the year ahead and the upcoming chance to get back on track. To this end, you can ask them what their “new school year resolutions” list looks like: for example, they might want to introduce themselves to one new person this year or get weekly assignments done a day earlier than they used to. Just remember to keep it lighthearted and simple!
4. Get Practical
Just as having a predictable routine can be reassuring for children, knowing what to expect practically from everyday situations can also be helpful in easing anxiety and combating stress. Little things that might not seem that important to you, like knowing the layout of their school, or having their daily schedule broken down for them, can really give them a sense of grounding and familiarity that should make the transition a lot smoother.
In addition, be frank with your children about the safety measures that they can expect to return to this year, especially if they haven’t experienced in-person learning in the time of Covid. Try to reframe any negativity surrounding these measures into a more positive light, reminding them that whatever your school district is doing (masking, distancing, putting up partitions, etc), just means that they school is helping them do what they need to do to keep themselves healthy and back in school where they belong!
5. Be Proactive About Mental Health
Whether or not your child has already been back to in-person learning, they might still be feeling the effects of the pandemic on their mental health – after all, this was a collective trauma that we all experienced, and children have not been immune to the depression and anxiety that many of us have been suffering from. We still don’t know what the long-term psychological effects of this past year could be, so as your children head back to school this year, you’ll need to check them for more than just lice or signs that they’re being bullied. Look for signs and symptoms that something is not quite right, like:
- Low mood or energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of enjoyment in normal activities
- Excessive concerns about safety
- Lack of motivation
When in doubt, talk to someone about your concerns, whether it’s a school counselor or your pediatrician – it’s ok to have a low threshold for getting help right now, since we are in uncharted waters!
6. Be Positive
Being positive about the upcoming year is probably one of the best ways to get your children ready for back to school! We get it, keeping a sunny outlook is not always easy, but remember that your children will always be tuned into you and your reactions, and will follow your lead. Try to engage in self-care that will help you focus on the good things for the upcoming year, and share that positivity with your children.
If your children are having trouble getting back into a routine, or are resistant to going back to school, remember that all of this has been tough on them, and they might also need more positive reinforcement. Praise them often for making good choices and fulfilling responsibilities, and build things into their lives that “reward” them for their hard work and give them a much needed break from any anxiety they’re feeling, like time at the park with you or other activities they enjoy.
Last school year was like no other we’ve ever experienced, and we still don’t know exactly what this upcoming one will look like. What we do know is that things have been tough on everyone, including our children, so we all need to work a bit harder this year to make the transition back to school a little easier. But with the tactics above, and a sense of optimism and hope, we can all get our lives back on track and our children back to where they need to be!