By Lauren Presutti
Backpacks, books, pencils, and masks… This back-to-school season is going to look a little differently. While each school district may be unique in how they prepare for classes to resume, there are many things that parents can do to support their K-12 children during this unprecedented school year. Below are some strategies you may find helpful.
1. Acknowledge Your Anxiety
Let’s face it – we’re anxious. Administrators try to keep us updated with parent letters and school website news, but everything still feels… somewhat fragmented and cloudy. I’m a therapist working with many parents who share similar concerns and fears about education this fall. The pandemic-related anxiety we all have felt this year is widespread, it feels overwhelming, and it feels unfair. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s give a name to what we are feeling. Sometimes identifying our emotions can help us feel more in control of them.
2. Remember You Are Not Alone
You might be tired of hearing the same old “We’re all in this together” mantra splashed across media and news sources – but there is a reason we keep repeating that phrase. Knowing that others are going through the same struggles we are facing can be a huge source of emotional comfort in times of stress. If you’re concerned about how schools are enforcing mask policies, or what academic support will be available for online learning, chances are that your child’s best friend’s parents are also experiencing those same fears. Make a list of your concerns and talk about them with people you trust. It might help you feel supported and validated, which always helps keep anxiety in check.
3. Learn the Protocols
Understanding the COVID-19 school protocols can help us feel a greater sense of control. Try to reflect on information you already have and consider your questions that remain. Don’t be afraid to approach school officials and request clear answers. Follow up consistently, be proactive, and stay involved during the first few weeks of school as hiccups are bound to be smoothed out over time. Feeling unprepared and not sure what questions you should be asking? Below are some examples.
For face-to-face learning:
- What changes have been made to classrooms, hallways, etc.?
- What exactly is the mask policy?
- Will hand sanitizer be readily available?
- Is the use of shared equipment being minimized?
- Have cleaning services been increased?
- What happens if someone at the school tests positive for COVID-19?
- How are you monitoring changes in community spread?
- What are you doing about sports and other activities?
For online learning:
- What are the expectations?
- Do students need to be online at certain times?
- What happens if my student is struggling academically online?
- Is the online curriculum going to be the same as face-to-face?
- Where can I find my child opportunities to socialize outside?
- What happens if there are technology or Internet problems?
- Can my child still participate in some activities at the school?
- How are teachers going to make online learning engaging and meaningful for kids?
4. Reinforce COVID-19 Precautions
Social distancing and handwashing are a must. Be consistent with kids so they are hearing the same rules in multiple settings. For many families, things have been more relaxed this past month as our communities opened up, but with the start of the school season, try to be proactive again about safety measures. Germs will spread at much faster rates now that school is in session – and flu season is just around the corner. Safeguard against any sickness by reminding your whole family to stick to the health precautions.
5. Establish Routines at Home
Regardless of our pandemic state, both kids and adults do better with routines. Daily schedules help reduce the need to make last-minute decisions and help to avoid chaos. Routines can help us generate a sense of flow or rhythm to our week, and designing a set routine for the school year helps us to prioritize and decide what is important to us. Family routines may consist of getting ready in the morning together, eating meals as a family, having a bedtime routine, scheduling set times for chores, homework, quiet time, and more. Be sure to add in some fun activities as well to break up the monotony. Spending family time together, such as regular walks outside after dinner or movie nights on Fridays, is critical for healthy development of kids and teens. Engage your kids in the process of designing your routine, post a schedule where everyone can see it, monitor what is working best, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments as needed.
6. Prioritize Family Health
Maintaining good physical and mental health is a prerequisite for academic success. To enhance family physical health, consider incorporating better nutrition into your weekly meal plans. Get active outdoors, such as backyard family soccer or jumping jacks. Boost your immune system with vitamins, monitor your energy level, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Scheduling physical health checkups with your primary care doctor to take care of any concerns early on may also be helpful before the school season gets rolling.
And while you’re making appointments, schedule a back-to-school mental health checkup with a therapist. A common misconception of mental health care is that people only see a therapist when there are problems, but this isn’t true. As a therapist, I urge people to establish good mental health care before they need it. Waiting until you are overwhelmed mid-school year makes it more difficult to setup good mental health care at that time. Now is a great time to find a good therapist that you feel comfortable with and who takes your insurance. Get the initial assessment and mundane paperwork over with, then just save your therapist’s phone number in case you become stressed a few months into the school year. Other strategies to enhance your mental health include exploring mindfulness and meditation, journaling, seeking social support, taking breaks as needed, and identifying your favorite ways to cope with stress.
7. Listen to Your Kids
Parents are not the only ones feeling stressed. Place yourself in your child’s shoes. They are entering a school year that will be totally different than in years past. No matter if they are in kindergarten or twelfth grade, be open and receptive to all kinds of reactions your kids may have about this back-to-school season. Always be curious and interested in what they have to say. Never judge, criticize, blame, or become angry when your kids are trying to express how they feel. They may express frustration or stress in a variety of ways – or they may be reluctant to talking at all – so pay close attention to their body language and behavior. Let them know you care about what they have to say. Active listening means being present physically and mentally, using language they will understand, refraining from lecturing, and showing real empathy in the conversation. This will go a long way in helping your kids feel heard.
8. Trust Your Instincts
Above all, trust your parental instincts. Maybe you never planned on starting a school year during a pandemic, but you have faced many parenting obstacles before and you persevered. You have an entire knowledge base on how to be a good parent for your kids. Consider what has been helpful for your family in the past. Remember that things will get worked out along the way. Sure, the first few weeks may not be perfect – but you’ll find your rhythm. Control what you can, and let go of the rest. Let go of perfectionism, expect some bumps along the way, but then adjust and make changes as needed. Good parenting is about taking one step at a time and seeking help when needed.