Back-to-school time is often ripe with nerves and anxiety as parents and children alike adjust to new routines. But this year promises to be more challenging given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and given that many children haven’t stepped foot in a school building since March 2020.
Here are eight things parents and students can start doing to prepare for the 2021-22 school year. Following these tips can help put your family on a path to a smooth transition.
1. Start having conversations with your children now about transitioning back to school.
Reviewing the practical aspects of school life can help you and your children feel more prepared to start the year. In small doses, you can discuss the various changes the new school year will bring in terms of schedules, responsibilities and expectations while at school.
Many students, especially younger children, may have forgotten the standards and behaviors expected in the school building. They may have spent much of the past 18 months attending virtual school in their pajamas. They may have set up their laptops on their beds or the couch, taking a bathroom break or grabbing a snack whenever they needed.
School, of course, is more structured, and a discussion around school rules will help remind children of expectations.
Keep conversations light and short, be open to your child’s questions, and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together.”
2. Talk about, and start re-establishing, routines. Adjust bedtime and wake-up times.
Explain to children the logistics for the upcoming school year, and enlist them to help. Talk about what needs to be done each morning to be ready for school, and how they can help, whether that’s packing their backpack the night before, choosing their clothing or helping prepare their lunch.
Many workplaces are transitioning to new schedules. Perhaps your commute is changing at the same time you’re adjusting to a new school routine. That means the morning routine will be more hectic than usual.
About two weeks before the first day of school, adjust bedtime and wake-up times. If your child’s bedtime routine fell by the wayside during the pandemic, try to get back on track. Quiet, calm activities, such as reading a book or taking a bath, signal to your child’s body and mind that it’s time to wind down.
Consider practicing the morning routine in advance. Visual checklists can be helpful, especially for younger children, and can empower them to help. Maybe even have fun doing a test run of the morning routine, including driving or walking to the school building!
3. Ask your children how they feel about going back to school.
Consider your child’s emotions. Ask what they’re worried about and what they’re excited about. Your goal isn’t necessarily to solve a problem that might come up but to validate their emotions and work together to see if there is a reasonable solution. It’s OK to say you’d be nervous too about going back. Be empathetic, not dismissive. Instead of saying, “It’s going to be fine,” say: “I understand you are worried about catching COVID at school. What can you and your friends do to keep yourselves safe?”
Your child may be worried about going to a new school building if your student is transitioning to middle school or high school, for example. Again, validate the concern, then talk about what helped them transition to a new school building previously, and remind them how they acclimated and found their way around in no time.
It’s important that we as parents are aware of our own emotions too. Children easily pick up on and internalize their parents’ fears and worries. Be compassionate with yourself – it’s tough for you too – and give yourself permission to do what’s needed to manage your stress.
4. Attend open houses.
If your school is having a virtual or in-person open house, try to attend. This is a great way to meet the teacher, get acclimated and ease anxiety
5. Practice mask wearing.
Some children are pros by now at wearing a mask all day, but others may not have needed to mask up for long stretches. If your students aren’t accustomed to wearing a mask all day, encourage them to practice! If your child is worried, validate the concern and ask, “What do you think we can do so you can get comfortable wearing a mask?” Maybe let them pick out some new designs, for example.
Remember to teach your children good mask-wearing hygiene: Masks should completely cover the nose and mouth. Do not touch the outside of the mask because that’s where germs land. Make sure the mask fits snugly when your child talks.
6. Talk about COVID-19 safety.
Explain that school will look and feel different, especially if they haven’t been to school since March 2020. Even if your child is vaccinated, social distancing, masking and hand washing will be a part of the school day. Encourage elbow bumps, or other creative greetings with friends, rather than hugging. Tell children not to share their lunches with their friends. And if your child is not feeling well, keep him or her home.
7. Get excited!
Many children love picking out a new backpack, sneakers, notebook or a special first-day outfit. Let your child select a few things to help drum up the excitement.
8. Get vaccinated!
If your children are ages 12 or older, please get them vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines are safe and effective, and protect our children, their friends and teachers, and the entire community. Now is a great time to get your child vaccinated because we are considered “fully vaccinated” about five weeks after the initial dose of a two-shot vaccine series.
Parents of all children, regardless of age, should also ensure that their kids’ other vaccines are up-to-date. If your child needs a meningitis shot, an MMR booster or another vaccination, now is the perfect time to set up the appointment. Also be sure to schedule any necessary well-child visits to ensure enough time for completion of required school forms.
Hopefully, your child will have a smooth transition to the 2021-22 school year, and any bumps along the way will resolve quickly. But if your child is withdrawn, has difficulty sleeping, is uncharacteristically moody or is trying to avoid school, talk to your child about it. If your child has persistent stomach aches or headaches, particularly in the morning, that might be a sign of school-related problems. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for guidance on managing school-related anxiety.
Above all, be there for your child during this challenging time. Show your love, support and encouragement. Spend quality time together, talk about concerns, offer treats or leave notes in a lunch box. Recognize that it’ll take time for everyone to readjust. Be patient with yourself and your children.
Best wishes for a safe and healthy school year!