Seven ways to help your child embrace the new “normal” for back- to-school

What will school look like for your child this fall? And how will your family handle it? While it’s normal to be anxious about all the uncertainty, parents can take steps to help children manage their stress and accept the “new normal” that exists.

Education will take many new forms this coming semester,  depending on your district — and none of them will likely look anything like what you or your child are expecting. Regardless of your child’s experience (in person or remote), the changes may be difficult to accept. 

child stressed about school

1. Make your own decision

The fact that many schools are giving families a choice between in person, online, or a hybrid of the two is creating an additional challenge for many parents. This decision can be a hard one, especially if your choice is different from what your neighbors or friends select. It can be confusing for your child and may even cause you to second guess your decision, explains Dr. Barbara Gannon, a pediatrician with Boston Children’s Health Physician’s Washingtonville Pediatrics.

But in fact, there is not one “right” or “wrong” answer about how to handle the COVID-19 situation. “I think every family has to do what they feel is right for them,” she stresses.

2. Weigh a range of risks

One factor to consider when deciding if you will send your child back to school in person is how prevalent COVID-19 cases are in your area. Dr. Gannon says that the illness is currently not as much of a concern in the greater New York and Connecticut areas as it was in the spring — but communities can vary a great deal. 

“In New York, people have made good decisions, wearing masks and social distancing, so our situation is different from some other parts of the country,” Dr. Gannon points out. But she adds that it’s a fluid situation that can change very quickly. 

Beyond the prevalence of local COVID-19 cases, families also need to weigh their own personal risk factors, says Kimberly Palmer, a social worker who is also with Washingtonville Pediatrics. Some things to consider when making a decision on how your child attends school include: whether family members are at high risk, if your work schedule can accommodate different schedules, and how your child will adapt to different styles of learning. 

3. Help your child accept the new reality

Regardless of how school looks for your child this year, Palmer and Dr. Gannon agree they will need your help to accept the decision and to make the best of what lies ahead, both now and over the coming months. You can do this by supporting your children through this rocky time and communicating clearly with them about what to expect. “Parents can say, ‘I will help you adapt to your new school situation and we will get through this together,’” Palmer says.

Part of the anxiety for everyone is that there is no precedence for this.  Their in-classroom experience will look very different this year, with masks and social distancing. Students will have much less social interaction and things will feel strange. This will take some serious getting used to.

There is no manual for this and how it will progress. Everyone from educators to parents to support staff are all trying to do what’s best for kids,” Palmer says.

4. Support your child's emotions

Whatever school looks like, your child may experience feelings of loss and mourn what they have given up, including in-person activities, sports, and social experiences. You can validate the range of emotions they are feeling and remind them that this is all part of staying safe. “This is a grief process they are going through. They will likely feel frustration, sadness, and relief,” Palmer stresses. “You can show empathy for what they are going through,” she says, but you also have to recognize that it’s something that you can’t ‘fix.’” 

In addition, Dr. Gannon points out that some children may experience separation anxiety if they plan to go to school in person, so it’s essential to be mindful of this and help them to get comfortable again. “The pandemic is bigger than any one person, but you can help your child by partnering with them and showing them that together you can get through it,” she says.

5. Be prepared for what comes next

“Prepare your child for circumstances to change as the school year gets underway,” Dr. Gannon says. For instance, even if your school opens in person, there may be a time over the next few months when things close up again.

Palmer says one way to do this is by having a backup plan ready. “A big piece of anxiety for kids is when the brain feels unsettled and goes to that ‘what if.’ One way to alleviate the feeling is to know how you will respond to different circumstances,” Palmer says. “That’s why I say to all kids I work with, ‘What is your backup plan?’” Talking this through in advance with your child and planning ahead can alleviate some of their stress.

6. Look to the future

Help your child look to the future. Remind them that this is a temporary circumstance and the hope is that in the future, their lives will return to their old “normal.” Gannon and Palmer agree that it can help to have something they can look forward to.  Remember, you are the role model, so your child will read your mood. Point out the positives of whatever your family is facing now, such as being able to slow down and spend more time together or taking this opportunity to explore new interests or hobbies. 

7. Ask for help as needed

If you or your child are struggling, be sure to ask for help. Schools have social workers and guidance counselors who are ready to support kids in need, even remotely, and can help children build resiliency skills and cope with stress. Your pediatrician can also connect you with our behavioral health specialists if you need more support. Remember that this is uncharted territory and help is just a phone call away.

 

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