Transitioning Back to School 

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

The new school year brings many unknowns. Here’s how you can emotionally prepare. 

As the days in quarantine continue on, millions of stressed parents and kids continue to try and navigate home schooling and life in close quarters in this COVID-19 “new normal.” 

The new school year may bring a host of new challenges and anxieties. None of us are sure what to expect. Things are in flux and there are a lot of unknowns — which may lead to the anxiety. 

But there are ways we can prepare. 

As an OC parent, former educator and youth educational and relationship coach, I’ve been using my background in these areas to help make families’ lives easier with advice on topics including online/distance learning, relationship pressures and youth/teen mental health issues arising from the pandemic. Here, I can provide you with some advice for tackling school in the fall in a COVID-19 world. 

What are some challenges parents might experience when school begins in the fall?
The greatest challenges we will face will stem from the same root cause: fear. And fear subsequently leads to future tripping, the art of worrying about the unknown, and adhering emotional equity to what can’t be controlled, rather than concentrating on the here and now. These fears will be comprised of both your own parental fears (for or about your child’s safety, health, school schedule and beloved activities) as well as your child’s own fears relating to those categories. With respect to fear-driven challenges, the greatest of these is anticipation. How will schools keep students socially distanced and safe? Will they be academically behind? And so on. Expect your student to also experience elevated levels of fear as it relates to re-entry. Their fears, though, might be different than your own. What will their sports be like? Can I still act in school plays? Will there be sports and plays? And so on. On the other hand, some students don’t miss school at all. They don’t miss the pace, the pressure, the peers or the pursuit of an elite college. So, while a student’s reluctance to return to school might stem from a fear of loss (of their school experience as it was) it may also stem from the realization that home school is actually preferred.

What are some ways to lessen these challenges?
Start the conversation now. Begin by expressing your own thoughts, concerns and worries with regards to school, and invite them into the conversation as a participant, rather than solely a recipient. Asking questions without offering your advice is an effective way to drive meaningful dialogue. Kids desire validation and assurance as they head back to school, and active listening skills are valuable tools to employ in this scenario. Additionally, take inventory of the school options that are available to your student, and don’t be afraid to step into a new school, or remain in an online setting if that has clearly become a better fit for their social-emotional needs.

What can parents do now to set kids up for future success in school?
Redefine your relationship with the terms of learning and success. Learning extends far beyond the metrics of GPA, test scores, GATE placement, etc. Collectively, we have become enamored with more-is-more, and love to track progress through standardized metrics. A student can be successful and learn vast amounts of skills through reading, art, creative play, building, coding, and even cooking family meals and maintaining household responsibilities. To set kids up for success in school, carve out avenues for informal learning throughout the summer, and emphasize reading above all other factors. Research has proven time and again that the infamous “summer slide” can be effectively mitigated by simply reading.

There are a lot of unknowns these days. What’s the best way for parents to tackle this with their kids?
Center your focus on what you can control as opposed to what you can’t. Creating a reliable schedule at home is a great way to begin. Kids thrive in structured environments (not militant) and establishing a routine is key to easing tension and stress. Keep it simple, and think: eat, sleep, learn, play, contribute. Instead of emphasizing what has been lost in the great unknown, center attention on silver linings, and opportunities to pursue new interests that didn’t see the light of day under the demands of traditional schedules.

The new school year might look very different from anything any of us have experienced, with possible continued social distancing, face masks/gloves, and sanitization measures. How should parents prepare themselves and their kids for this?
Create a narrative for your children. Rather than storytelling from a posture of fear, shift and deliver storytelling from a proactive and positive point of view. Preface precautions such as masks, gloves, hand-washing and distancing as empowering tools children can use. Lack of control creates feelings of nervousness in children, so letting them know how to maintain control over their health coupled with a tone of trust and autonomy will do wonders for their self-esteem and confidence.

Considering the social nature when children are normally at school, how can parents help kids with the idea they might not be able to play as usual even if they do go back to their school campus?
When the fall school year returns, in whatever form that may be, it will no doubt come with restrictions and limitations when compared to previous years. Kids are tremendously resilient and adaptable; in fact, it is often we as adults who battle the tide of change with most reluctance. While we assume kids can find relatability on platforms like FaceTime or Zoom, they actually crave face-to-face interaction. In terms of replacing or modifying old norms with new ones, look for ways to modify activities that best mimic old ones. Again, this comes back to communication. Try brainstorming potential solutions, guiding rather than directing will prove most effective. Even if you arrive at the same solution, the ownership assumed via reciprocal dialogue will allow your children to better embrace their new limitations.

Daniel Patterson is an Orange County parent, former educator and youth educational and relationship coach. In addition to his consulting practice, He’s also been offering free virtual consulting and webinars for families in need and donating proceeds from his new book “Recover[edu]” to the Patrick’s Purpose Foundation, an OC-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting teen mental health.