How Parents Can Help Young Children Get ‘Back to School’

Whether it’s virtual or in-person learning, they’ll need reassurances and honesty for a seamless transition in the fall.

In a back-to-school season like none before, parents and caregivers of younger children find themselves justifiably worried about their return to the classroom, if the school district takes that direction.

Dr. Kirby Wycoff—the Community and Trauma Counseling program director in the University’s College of Health Professions’ Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health—recently spoke about what prompts these concerns and fears and how to equip youths to handle the uncertainty.

“Our brains literally don’t have a template for ‘going back to school during a global pandemic,’ so we make guesses or our best estimates of what things might look like,” Dr. Wycoff says. “The same is true for kids. In the absence of concrete information, kids fill in the blanks and often with the worst-case scenario kind of information. As parents, we want to make sure we focus on what we do know to be true and factual at any given time.”

Back-to-school options locally and nationally will see many children learning virtually for the foreseeable future.

From a big-picture perspective, she recommends that parents focus on “managing and regulating their own emotions while helping their kids do the same.” Dr. Wycoff also offered many tips for navigating the new hybrid/in-person/all-distance landscape and other uncertainties that parents and their school-aged children may soon encounter.

How can the current state of the world trigger worry and anxiety among parents?

The fear of the unknown can be a big trigger for our anxiety and worry. The key is to notice those feelings. Identify them, acknowledge them and accept that they’re there. When we give space for feelings and not judge ourselves for having them, we can better manage and cope with them.

If parents are worried about outbreaks and students not wearing masks, it can make them feel jittery, frazzled and wound up.

Mindful acceptance is the practice of acknowledging our feelings and accepting that they’re there. Some concrete measures can help engage in this practice:

  • Taking slow, deep breaths can help our mind and body manage uncomfortable feelings.
  • Close your eyes and note how the breath comes in and out of your body. Just one minute of focused, thoughtful breathing can be helpful.
  • Slow down and notice things. What’s happening in our body? What’s happening around us? Live in the present moment. Focus on the people close to you in any given moment, connect with them and be present, rather than worry about what’s coming next or ruminating or what has already happened.
  • Be kind and forgiving to yourself and allow yourself to feel.

The goal for all of us is to help us cope with the stressors of the upcoming school year and thrive in the face of adversity.

Back to School
Temperature checks will become a common sight at elementary, middle and high schools.

Parents must juggle to balance work, family, health and wellness, and the more stressed parents are, the more stressed the family system will be. Know that it’s OK to not have it all together and expect there will be times when you feel like you’re not doing it right.

How should parents handle concerns about hybrid learning?

The more comfortable the kids and parents are with the “what will it look like and how will we navigate it,” the less anxious they will be.

Some things folks worry about with hybrid learning revolve around managing screen time and ensuring their child understands the lessons, the teacher is accessible, kids are using technology appropriately, kids are getting enough physical activity and more.

Equipping ourselves with knowledge ahead of time, the more prepared we will feel and the less anxious we will be.

How about fears related to in-person instruction?

Arm yourself with information and build relationships. Educate yourself about what measures the school is taking to keep kids safe for in-person/on-ground learning.

Building positive relationships with teachers, principals and educators is one of the most effective ways to manage school-related stress, whether the learning is occurring in-person or virtually.

Being on the same page with the educators and opening lines of communication is always one of the first lines of defense to deal with school-related stress.

Back to school
Social distancing is a must for in-person instruction.

How should parents prepare for their children coming in contact with those who don’t take masking and social-distancing guidelines as closely as they’d like?

Many aspects of this pandemic have become highly politicized. Everyone has the right to make choices for themselves and their own families. We may find ourselves in situations where people that we’re close with, or consider friends, have very different ideas about this entire situation. Recognizing this will occur and expecting it ahead of time, can reduce some of our anger and frustration when it does.

At the same time, as adults, we have a responsibility to protect and advocate for ourselves and our families. Working with the whole family to identify a plan will be helpful.

  • Writing out a script, role-playing and practicing responses will help kids feel more comfortable about the situation when it does arise. Kids look to the adults in their life to figure out how they should respond to a situation.
  • If we can role model calm, direct and respectful communication in front of our kids when we do encounter a “rule breaker,” our kids will feel safer and more secure.
  • Teach your kids that it’s OK to say no to an adult and they have a right to decide what happens to their body.
  • Have a clear process or plan in place about decision making in the family. How will our family make decisions about school policy and practices impacting us? Are we comfortable with the policy the school has in place?
  • Use factual information, grounded in scientific evidence, to drive our decision making. Consider the unique needs of your family when you make these decisions.
Back to School
Pay attention to your kids’ sleeping, eating and activity levels. More or less of any of these things, or general disruptions, can be indicative of something more significant.

How about handling back-to-school concerns in general?

The most important thing is to create a culture of “talk-about-ability” in our families. We want our kids to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and fears, and we want to validate and acknowledge them when they do.

As parents, the worst thing we can do is invalidate our kids’ emotions. For example, when a child says, “I am worried I won’t see Sara again until next year and she won’t be my friend anymore after all of this,” the parents might say, “Oh honey, it will be fine. Sarah is a great friend.” While well-intended, that parent just sent the message that, “Your worry and fear doesn’t matter.” What would be better to say is, “Honey, I can hear that you’re worried about how your friendships will look different this year.”

Building a language of talking about and acknowledging feelings will help with back-to-school anxiety.

The key here is understanding and recognizing what we can control and mindfully accept what we cannot control. When we hyper-focus on things out of our control, anxiety can increase. Recognizing what we can control and accepting what we cannot control will help us manage the uncertainty of the coming school year. Plan ahead, but be flexible.

We want our kids to talk to us about what’s on their mind, including what they think about COVID.–Dr. Kirby Wycoff

The best thing we can do is follow the guidelines put out by the scientific community about social distancing and transmission reduction.

Are there any other important points that you think parents should hear?

Pay attention to your kids’ sleeping, eating and activity levels. More or less of any of these things, or general disruptions, can be indicative of something more significant. Observing these things will help us support the mental health and wellness of our kids and families as we transition into the new school year.

We want our kids to talk to us about what’s on their mind, including what they think about COVID.

Be clear and honest in a comfortable and sensitive way when we have the same questions and don’t have answers. When our kids ask us, “What will it look like when I go back to school,” it’s OK to say, “You know, we’re not really sure. Here’s what we do know …” and then further, “This is what we know. This is the plan now, but things may also change. If that happens, we will adjust.”

Kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. Sometimes it’s the grown-ups that struggle more than the kids. Our job is to support and build our kids’ (and our own) resilience during times of stress and uncertainty.

We’re all in this together, but we aren’t all in the same boat. It’s important to acknowledge how the system and structural issues disproportionality impact some communities and families.

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