How the Stress of Going Back to School in 2020 Can be a Learning Opportunity for You & Your Child

September 3, 2020

The beginning of any school year is filled with stress for parents and their children knowing that their fun-filled Summer is over, and change lies ahead. Whether it be new teachers, classmates, and routines, or the pressures that ensue, anxiety often feels like an inevitable outcome. With the changes that 2020 has landed on our doorstep, all of our routines have been turned upside down. Parents and families are all left asking: what can we do?

The first step is recognizing and acknowledging that you are not alone. Parents around the world are united in their current concern, questions, exhaustion, and anxiety about sending their children back to school in the midst of so much change. Change in how things will look and feel, and in the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of what lies ahead – creating much anxiety for all. This anxiety is natural and shared by many. Children share these same worries and concerns, yet often may mask them given the understandable desire to return to normalcy in their school setting. So how does one lend consistency for their children during an inconsistent time?

It is important for you as a parent to remember that children learn by observing your modeling, guiding, coaching, and how you respond to them which influences how they learn and also how they cope with the emotions that they feel. During a time when emotions run high, you make an impact. Your ability to manage, discuss, and appropriately express your own emotions will have a positive influence on your child, who will realize that feeling these emotions is both permitted and acceptable. Because a child’s first language is that of emotion, very little slips by them in the emotional realm. Being emotional detectives, they will pick up on your stress, anxiety, and concern about their return to school, which will in turn affect how they respond to these feelings in their own lives. What we do with our emotions impacts not only our mental health, but also our ability to learn. Conversely, understanding and managing our emotions lessens the likelihood that we will be overwhelmed by them, allowing an open mind for learning and exploration. This becomes especially true for children.

If your child expresses concern about changes at school, validate their feelings and reassure them that you are experiencing them too and that they are normal. Together come up with a plan to help your child feel better. In fact, working together to solve the problem at the root of your child’s anxiety is the best approach, rather than trying to do it for them. Encouraging your child to come up with ideas for what might help them feel better and working with them to find an appropriate solution to their concerns will help reduce their anxiety while helping them feel more confident in dealing with the changes that lie ahead.

In The New York Times article, “What Going Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of COVID-19,” Dana Goldstein lays out the many changes that have been introduced in schools, many of which apply across age groups including early childcare, elementary school, and high school. Being prepared for these changes and helping your child do the same will help your entire family deal with change-related anxiety in a constructive way. Accepting your feelings around these changes is important for deciding on a plan of action that will best suit your family and your child. Putting a plan in place helps organize our emotions and our actions, and most importantly leaves us feeling more in control and better suited to come up with solutions to the problem – an important step in helping our children to do the same.

Having a plan of action and including your child in the process is a way of turning these uncertainties into a learning opportunity and is critical for their emotional well-being and prolonged learning and success. Focus on helping your child feel safe. Maintaining a calm, but fun and engaging environment at home for children to return to after school will add consistency to the changes they are experiencing on a daily basis. Make time to inquire about their day at school so there is opportunity to share feelings and experiences. Include your child in creating your plan of action, so they feel involved and in control. While you and your child may experience anxiety about the change that is ahead, reassure them that there are precautions you can take to stay healthy within the “new normal.” If your child has questions about what this will look like, be truthful in your responses and make sure they know that if more changes occur, you will be there to continue to respond to their concerns and answer their questions. 

Involving your child in your plan and providing answers to their questions will help them feel prepared. Coming up with creative ways to continue with a “normal” routine, stay socially and emotionally connected, and to make home and school environments feel safe may mitigate the heightened feelings your child is experiencing as a result. Help your child focus on what they are able to control - washing hands regularly, wearing a mask to help them and others feel safe, or being a helper in reminding others to social distance. Engaging your child in this way not only provides opportunities for feelings of empowerment and control, but also shows them that their thoughts, ideas, and emotions are important and valued, thus helping them to develop the confidence and resiliency necessary in managing and dealing with uncertainty and change.

As a part of your routine, include aspects of play and fun to your home life! Play is critical for young children to learn and begin to develop important skills for emotional, cognitive, and social learning. The power of play not only happens at school, but also takes place outside of school and at home. Invent new games with your child that can help feed into their new school routines. Imaginative play in particular allows children to try out different roles and scenarios. You may suggest acting out these changes of routine in play, or notice that they are acting out their concerns, which is very normal in helping them to better understand, work through and feel more in control about the realities they are experiencing. This reenactment through play will help foster a feeling of competence and confidence in your child being better prepared to deal with what to expect for their first days back.

Remember, children are resilient especially when receiving responsive and supportive interactions from significant adults in their life – this is you! This idea in itself is a central tenet of the begin to ECSEL program that was developed as an intervention and prevention tool to support children and their emotional, cognitive and social early learning. You, as a parent, can provide important experiences for your young children to learn, thrive, and grow. Acknowledge and manage your own emotions, be open with your child about what you are feeling, respond to their questions truthfully, show understanding and validate your child’s feelings, check in with your child regularly about what they are feeling, and create a home routine that is both consistent and fun and prepares your child for what to expect when they return to school. And when that is all in place, as parents we can continue to breathe and thrive as well!

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