“That was another heartbreaker,” says the dad, who asked not to be identified to protect his son’s privacy. “He wants to see friends, but he worries he’ll put me at risk. I’m an older dad, and he feels like my protector.” Children across the country have had to manage months of upheaval and difficult emotions, and the new school year is likely to bring more disruption.
While some students thrived during distance learning in the spring, many others struggled with the format or with other challenges, such as concerns about safety, family finances or health. Whatever form school takes, here are four ways parents and educators can help children cope with change and uncertainty as we face the new school year.
Share family members’ struggles and help kids develop their own narrative. Parents instinctively shield their children from pain, says Bruce Feiler, author of “Life Is in the Transitions,” but that is shortsighted and can hinder a child’s ability to navigate transitions. His research has shown that most people experience three to five “life quakes” or massive life changes that can have aftershocks for years. “Instead of over-protecting, we want to be saying that sometimes bad things happen, and we’re going to stick together and get through it as a family.”
Many kids get comfort from hearing family stories. “Tell them stories of people they know who overcame hardships,” Feiler says, to help them understand how those life quakes have affected others.
Encourage them to think about their own narrative, too. “They can tell themselves, ‘I’m learning about the world — there are wars, there are recessions, life isn’t linear — so I’m going to work on building the skills of managing a life quake,’ ” Feiler says. He encourages his twin 15-year-old daughters to keep a journal and write about their ups and downs.
“Kids like to think life is a fairy tale or superhero story, but the truth is that it’s not the hero who makes the fairy tale; it’s the wolf, the tornado, the pandemic,” he says. “You can’t banish the wolf and you don’t want to, because that’s when the heroes are made. We all have to be the hero of our own story, and this is a hero-making moment.”
Help them understand and manage their emotions. “The air is drenched with this amorphous kind of grief,” and loss can take many different shapes, says psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect.” Ambiguous grief is the 7-year-old who wonders, “Why can’t I just go back to school?” Acute grief is the teen whose family member died. Anticipatory grief is the 11-year-old who asks, “Will I have to go back to distance learning in the winter?” Moral outrage grief is the child who feels deep sadness about what is happening in the country and the world. “Most of us are experiencing two or three types, and you can’t move away from such a strong emotion until you can define what you’re grieving,” she says.
Once a child understands their feelings, they can take steps to feel better. Zoom in on what they can control. They can’t ensure they’ll be in school on the same days as their best friend, but they can find other ways to connect. They can’t vanquish sadness, but they can talk to a trusted adult, try a movement or relaxation strategy, repeat a mantra such as, “This won’t last forever,” or shift the focus to helping others. “ ‘We not me’ will get them through hard times,” says Michele Borba, author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” “Feeling ‘with’ someone is the best cure for depression.”
Partner with the school to meet kids’ needs. Emotions are contagious, and children take their cues from caregivers, says Jae Lee, principal of Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda, Md. “Reassure them that it will be okay and that staff can’t wait to see them, teach them, play and be together again.”
Monitor school communications as plans evolve, adds Christina Conolly, director of psychological services for Montgomery County Public Schools. “You want to prepare your child for what school will look like, what’s going to happen and how they can get support.”
Some students will need more help than others. “A child may be in a household that experienced economic devastation; they may have lost a family member to covid-19; or they may have added layers of stress related to issues around race, discrimination and police brutality,” she says. Her district is working with educators to help them understand trauma and the importance of leading with trust and compassion. Anxiety and depression also can manifest as aggression, irritability, avoidance or shutting down at home. Reach out to a school counselor or outside mental health provider if your child is unusually clingy or fearful, requires excessive reassurance, complains of headaches or other physical symptoms, exhibits major changes in sleeping or eating habits or loses interest in activities they used to enjoy.
Think creatively about touch, play and connection. These things are important for children’s social and emotional development, and kids will feel their absence.
Lee worries that the lack of natural communication will confuse children. He likes the idea of clear masks so students can see adults’ expressions, and his staff is committed to finding other ways to infuse warmth when schools can open.
“We all long to break that personal boundary in fun but safe ways,” Lee says, adding that he’s considered whether it might be safe to incorporate elbow high-fives or foot bumps instead of fist bumps.
Sallie Permar, professor of pediatrics and immunology at Duke University, advises thinking in terms of levels of risk. “Hugging when both people have a mask on is less risky than if either person is unmasked. A high-elbow is better than a high-five because the elbow hasn’t been as many places,” she said.
The same logic holds outside of school, says David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Older children can go on a walk or hike in a relatively quiet place where they can hear each other speak but maintain distance, and have get-togethers outside where they use folding chairs or mats to create distance,” he said.
No matter how careful someone is, there will be some level of risk, particularly in communities with more disease activity. “We’re trying to have a picnic in the middle of a forest that’s on fire, and we’re asking questions like, ‘How do we get to the open patch in the middle? Should we bring buckets of water? Where should we park?’ ” Aronoff says. “This is difficult for everybody.”
After all, as Feiler says, the entire world is going through a life quake together. “As scary and sad as it is, I’m hopeful there will be an upside for our children,” he says. “We’re going to make a lot of calluses and forge a lot of transition-management skills — that is the absolute, undeniable, gold star, silver lining of the pandemic.”