With the coronavirus global health pandemic still underway, many parents are grappling with the best ways to talk to their children about the school year. The world has collectively gone through a shift in our reality: busy days full of errands and trips have been traded for workdays at home and walks around the neighborhood. Crowded bar patios have been swapped for socially distant car parades and happy hours over video chat. We now opt for large smiles and waves, from six feet away, rather than group hugs and long embraces.
As adults, this change rocked our worlds. The collective, worldwide, pause of life has brought out deep-seated emotions for many of us. Though as adults we’re likely, at least in some ways, already accustomed to dealing with change in our lives. Whether moving cities, starting new jobs, entering and ending personal relationships or more, we’ve been trained by life experience to embrace this pandemic with a similar attitude of fortitude.
Our children don’t have this same amount of training. Their young lives have likely been mapped out, consistent, and structured. As things in the world shift and change, your child may very likely feel overwhelmed by all of the transitions happening in their young lives. They are still developing their own personal system of coping mechanisms related to adjusting to change.
No matter where you live in the country, this upcoming school term will look drastically different than what your children are used to. Some schools are choosing to open their doors and will operate in a staggered system, possibly splitting the children from their normal groups and classes. Other schools are embarking on a full-on online version of school. Some parents are making the personal decision to forgo the school systems overall, and will homeschool their children for the foreseeable future.
Take a moment to place yourself in your child’s shoes.
Typically, the end of summer is marked by back-to-school commercials, trips to the store to stock on up fresh new school supplies, the smell of sharpened pencils, and the sounds of backpacks zipping up and down. Your child may have called his or her friends to ask which classes they’ve been assigned to, smiling with glee when they realize that they share a lunch period or recess with their best friends. They may have been anticipating picking out their outfit for the first day of school. They would likely hop into bed and fall asleep giddy with anticipation for the new school year, and to be reunited with their peers.
Now, for the first time, the school year is marked with an energy of chaos. The people they assume know everything (their parents and other important adult figures in their lives) are unsure of what the future holds. Your child may wonder when he or she will see their friends again, when they’ll run around on the playground again, and when they’ll be able to return to their own sense of normalcy.
If you haven’t carved out a specific time to directly discuss the new school year with your children, now is the time to do so. Perhaps you’ve kept them updated through occasional bits of information throughout the summer, but such a large shift requires a more straightforward conversation.
It’s important for your child to know that you understand what they’re going through. When you speak to them, try not to minimize their experience. Many adults had a hard time adjusting to a new version of their work lives; consider your child’s shift in the school year to be of equal caliber.
Tell your child that you recognize that things aren’t as consistent as they typically are. Reassure them that home life will still be structured, and that they can always count on their family and home domain to feel safe and dependable. Even when school life seems chaotic, make sure their foundation is planted firmly with home and family life. When a person feels as if they’re standing on solid ground, it’s far easier to deal with change.
Ask your child about any concerns they have about the new school year. How are they truly feeling? You may be surprised to learn what they choose to confide in you. Perhaps they’ll miss their friends, more than the classroom itself. Maybe they feel comfortable with the social component, but are feeling sad about the field trips they’ll miss out on. Maybe they were looking forward to the new school year as a way to present a “new” version of themselves that they’ve grown to be, and feel as if that milestone will no longer occur.
Once you know what their concerns are, you can develop a plan to address them. Find a way to schedule socially distant friend time, if your child is concerned that they’ll miss their school friends. Schedule family field trips to fun, new places around the city. Encourage them to journal, make art, or schedule a fun photo shoot if your child wants to find ways to express themselves.
Overall, it’s important to communicate that you’re entering the school year as a team. Don’t assume that your child knows that these changes are only temporary; they may very well feel as if their entire world is turning upside down. Reassure your child that you’re there to listen and to support their needs throughout the school year. Check in to gather regular updates about their status, as human emotion is ever-changing. If nothing else, make sure your child knows that change is an unavoidable part of life, and the best way to move through it is with a support system of people who love you.