The report after Day 1: He understood instructions more easily. He could find his assignments and classwork on the confusing online platform better when his teachers were there. It all just made more sense, he said. On top of that, he saw a handful of classmates he hadn’t seen for months.
But that was Day 1. He wants to be back in school, truly. But at the same time, it’s causing some anxiety that we hadn’t seen during the pandemic. And he’s not alone. Other students have balked at the front door, refused to go in and texted parents during the day to tell them they’re nervous.
This, say child development experts, is to be expected.
“Our children are going to show signs or symptoms of anxiety when they reenter,” says Harold Koplewicz, founder of the Child Mind Institute and author of “The Scaffold Effect: Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant and Secure Kids in an Age of Anxiety.” And because parents are so relieved their children are getting back to school, “we won’t understand why they’re not happy.”
We need to expect that they may balk, and they may feel (and act) out of sorts. They may not attend school with the same energy and excitement as we want their “back-to-school” Instagram photos to show. Even if we parents realize that we’re not great teachers and they need trained professionals, we also need to realize that this transition back (if they’re lucky enough to have it) will be accompanied by nerves, anxiety and questions.
“It’s important for parents to remember that even kids without social anxiety are going to feel nervous because they’re out of practice,” says Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of the Center for Psychological Services at George Mason University. “It’s like with math: If no one does it over the summer, they lose all of that. So expect that there are going to be social hiccups, and that’s okay. It’s normal for everybody.”
Here are ways to help children with the return:
Provide routine and structure
“It’s important to think about the way we parent, and very often, we don’t. We think about it when our kids are in trouble instead of preparing,” Koplewicz says. Parents should, he said, be the “scaffold” that protects and guides children as they grow, but “not impede learning and risk-taking as they grow up.”
Sources of stability will help them feel supported in this wild time: Make sure that your kids have routines and know the house rules, and that you clearly communicate all of this with them.
You can even get children into a school routine, even if they’re still remote, Koplewicz says. Have them wake up at their usual school time, eat breakfast and brush their teeth, even if they’re sitting back down at a desk in your house. And model this for them: “If parents are walking around in pajamas all the time, that’s not structure,” Koplewicz says.
Prepare them for change
The school your children are returning to probably won’t look like the one they left. Prepare them for what they are about to see and feel, says Jay Berger, chairman of pediatrics with ProHealth in New Hyde Park, N.Y. Let them know there will be masks, distance between friends, perhaps plexiglass dividers and a different lunchtime and recess than they had when school shuttered.
One of the biggest things that will contribute to a child’s anxiety on the return to school and life outside of shutdowns is “all the uncertainty,” she says. “The more information kids have at the appropriate developmental level, the better.”
At the same time, keep your own anxieties in check. “Kids are very impressionable and going to follow your lead. You shouldn’t transmit your own fears, but empower children with the tools they need to stay safe in school," Berger says, by making sure they know the proper guidance on masks, dividers and social distancing. "Then when they get to school, those tools are there, and they can stay safe. Kids are awesome and they make it happen.”
Don’t pretend there aren’t worries
“So many kids are dealing with the idea of return in person,” Mehlenbeck says. “A lot of outlets are talking about that as returning more to normal, and it’s not. It’s really important for parents and schools to help kids expect that it’s not a return to normal, but that it’s a new opportunity to get out of the house and to learn and to see their friends in person in a safe way.”
Don’t assume your children don’t have worries. Glossing over the issues will only exacerbate any concerns they may have, Mehlenbeck says. “Parents and teachers should normalize the worries. Everyone has them.”
Some ways to do that? Find spots where you, as a family, can connect and get comfortable. If you haven’t sat down for family meals together during the pandemic, try it now. “That’s a time when things really come out,” Mehlenbeck says. For teens and tweens, drives can help, because you aren’t looking at each other. Ask open-ended questions, not just, “Did you have a good day?” She suggests: “What’s going on today? What happened in school today? What social media did you check out today?” Those questions, she says, are helpful if a child wants to share, because you’re opening the door for conversation. “If they’re not ready to share, that’s okay. They know you’re there,” she says.
Help them work their social muscles
This pandemic has taken a toll on kids who have missed out on social interactions, so it’s important that we try to get our kids together with friends in safe ways as much as possible before school starts in person. That way, easing back in might be simpler, Berger says. “I’m not just talking on Zoom, which is helpful. I’m talking in person. It is essential for kids to socialize with their friends,” he says. “Walk, have a catch, go on a bike ride, go to the park. Wear a mask and stay six feet apart. … I send my [teen] son out, and he goes for a bike ride [with a friend]. This kid who was moping around, all of a sudden, he’s so happy.”
With time, they will probably come home from in-person school revived and happy, too.