Schools are reopening this fall with the hope of providing some normalcy to children stressed by changes due to the pandemic. But their return will be anything but normal. The world they are about to re-enter will look drastically different than the one they are used to as schools adapt to create a learning environment that meets the COVID recommendations put in place. These changes and adaptations will cause confusion and disconnect in some children who are returning to school with the hope of reestablishing a foundation of normalcy and predictability that sadly no longer exists.
So how do we as teachers and parents support their emotional needs during this transitive time? As a preschool teacher who has guided parents for over 20 years through the transition into kindergarten, I can see that the same rules apply as your child now returns to the uncharted territory of a post-quarantine classroom.
Prepare them for the return and what it will look like.
We spend weeks, even months, preparing our children emotionally for kindergarten by reading books, talking about the bus ride, boasting about kind teachers and new friends, and selecting the perfect lunchbox because we know that it is natural to have anxiety when something is unknown or unfamiliar. This school year will look different than anything your child has experienced before. Feelings of confusion from this change in dynamic are to be expected.
Each school district has created an individual plan that suits the needs of their community best. Be sure to check your school’s website, social media page or call your administration directly to understand exactly how your school is redesigning their day to meet their local COVID response.
Speak candidly to your child about what the changes will be so they are prepared for what to expect on their first day as best as possible. Helping them visualize what is ahead of them helps to lessen confusion and build confidence. Break out those Barbies and Batman action figures to play out the sequence of their school day, create a map of their day, or draw a picture of what the classroom may look like to help your child engage and internalize what is about to happen.
Keep a consistent routine at home.
It is natural for your child to have some fear or uncertainty as they adjust to their new school dynamic. One of the best things that mitigates this fear is creating a routine of predictability at home.
We have all become disconnected from our scheduled lives since the beginning of quarantine, and it will take some time to adapt back to a structured lifestyle. Start a few days before school returns and begin to establish a daily routine of waking up around the same time as your school starts, getting dressed (yes, it’s time to pack up those pajamas we’ve been wearing for months), eating breakfast, and adding activity time when they would be attending class. Use this time to read books together, go over some math flash cards, learn a new word from the dictionary; build, craft, or engage in any other brain building activity your child enjoys. Flex those brain muscles again! Establish an afternoon routine that includes some time outdoors and self-directed play. Eat dinner around the same time each night and have a routine for bed.
Keep this routine once school starts. There will be days where you are tempted or even too overwhelmed to keep this structure, and that’s okay. We all need some days to let things slide but try to get back to the schedule when you can because, in the long run, consistency will manage your child’s anxiety much more effectively.
There is a good chance that some of your child’s learning will be virtual. Do your best to maintain a similar schedule of in-school days during virtual days, but maybe allow those pajama pants to resurface on these days. Design a learning space together by following your child’s lead about where they think they will work best. Some children prefer to work in the center of chaos with activity around them, i.e. the kitchen counter. Some children prefer to have a quiet, isolated corner with headphones on. My child loved to work curled up in a ball on top of her play bench. Who is to say what environment is right or wrong if the work is getting done effectively? As long as expectations are being met, allow your child the opportunity to experiment with self-regulation knowing that they will need your support at times to stick with it as they develop these skills. Demonstrating this trust and respect in your child to self-promote and regulate will go a long way in developing their self-awareness and inner confidence.
Speak in a positive language.
Children are very intuitive to emotions and easily pick up on feelings from the adults around them. As a parent, you have every right to feel overwhelmed or fearful about your child returning to school, but it is important to do your best to minimize expressing these fears and frustrations in front of your child. Children will easily internalize these emotions for themselves and carry our worry for us instead of us helping them to relieve their own. Be honest with yourself and your child that this new dynamic will present challenges and obstacles and it’s ok to be frustrated or upset about them. But also be mindful to speak in reassuring and positive ways, the same way you did when they were nervous about kindergarten, to build confidence in your child.
You can model this positive language by saying things like, “Your school worked very hard to put a good plan in place to learn safely.” “It will be wonderful to see your teacher and friends during the week.” Remind your child that these new restrictions aren’t meant to make them unhappy, but are put in place because their school wants to care for them as best as possible. Children reflect what we model for them. When we model positive language, they will internalize that and do their best to think positively as well.
Validate their feelings and listen to their words.
Be sure to listen to your child and help their feelings be heard. As a parent, it is important to try not to respond with “don’t” statements like “don’t feel that way” “don’t cry” or “don’t be upset”. These statements can invalidate a child’s feelings and add to their confusion. Instead, use reflective speech to show that they have been heard. “I hear that you are sad that you weren’t able to play with your friend at recess. Do you want to talk about it?”
Oftentimes, they are too little to have the words to express what they are feeling, so reading books that focus on emotions are very helpful to extend their emotional vocabulary. When a child doesn’t have the words or confidence to express themselves verbally, allow them the ability to express themselves creatively instead. Help them set up a supportive outlet like a LEGO corner, create a music playlist together, leave markers and paper available for free expression, set up an easel, offer a journal for writing or drawing, or go for a hike where your child takes the lead. Providing this level of emotional support and respect will be monumental in their emotional management.
Be prepared for meltdowns.
Even with all these supportive measures in place, your child still may have days where their emotions will overwhelm them proving they are not yet able to manage their inexperienced minds effectively. Meltdowns are to be expected. The biggest challenge as a parent is to not internalize them as a failure on our part, but as the result of an overwhelmed, underdeveloped and often exhausted child who just needs to release their emotions.
Let them cry. Let them scream. Provide them space and safety while establishing that throwing, hitting, and other potentially hazardous behaviors are not allowed. These moments may happen right as they return from school or other unexpected times during the day.
If your child is having a reaction bigger than the situation presented (who hasn’t had a child lose it over the color of their macaroni and cheese?) it may be a resulting build up from earlier in the day. If the meltdowns are occurring regularly, remember that you have a team of helpful resources at your aid. Speak with your child’s teacher, pediatrician, school social worker or psychologist for further support in meeting your child’s emotional needs. You are not in this alone.
Transitions into unknown territories are challenging and emotional. Give yourself and your child the time and patience to learn how to regulate, develop and build lifelong emotional skills that will carry you through this new school dynamic. You have successfully made it through the Kindergarten experience before, and you will be able to do it again!