In the next few weeks, children all over the country will be returning to school during one of the most unusual and challenging times of our generation. Although there is still a debate on whether or not this is a prudent idea at this point, the reality is the return to school is an inevitability. Regardless of your view on the timing of school starting, it is important to note our kids are in a position where their emotional, behavioral, and academic well-being is contingent on the structure and predictability of getting back to a regular school schedule. This is especially true for students from low-income households, who are sometimes highly dependent on school-supported services like food programs, special education services, and after-school programs. It would be foolish to think that restarting school will not come with special challenges simply because it seems clear the virus will spread among some student populations. To be sure, there is risk involved in this process, but as a mental health professional the level of risk we are taking is worth the potential emotional gains. As our children adjust to the new normal of school in a COVID-19 world, here are some strategies we can all implement that will help mitigate the risks and ease the transition back to class.
Strategy #1: Manage your anxiety
Kids will mirror the emotionality of their parents. This is a proven fact that has been demonstrated in research for many years. Translation: anxious parents will have anxious kids. If you are incredibly anxious about sending your children back to school, it is likely your kids will be incredibly anxious about going back to school. Your first job as a parent this fall is to make sure that you are effectively managing your own anxiety and modeling optimism every day. This comes down to the battleground of our mind. The more we perseverate on the inherent risk of being at school, the more anxious we will become. If you are really struggling with worry and anxiety about your kids getting the virus, write those anxious thoughts down in the moment and begin to challenge them with more balanced realistic thoughts. Even the CDC’s website, the best available evidence, indicates that if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms. The CDC also says, “The harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well known and significant.” After you write your anxious thoughts down, literally write down this information from the CDC and apply this research to your children in particular. “If Johnny gets sick, his symptoms will likely not be severe, and it is important for his social, emotional and behavioral health to be at school this year.” Believe it or not, a journaling exercise like this can be very effective to alleviate anxiety in the moment. Whatever strategy you use to deal with the uncertainty, manage your anxiety first before you try to help your children manage their anxiety.
Strategy #2: Build optimism
Once you have dealt with your anxiety, you can start to build optimism in your children about the school year. Let’s face it, some of our kids are bummed about going back to school. After all, they just had the most epic five-month spring break ever. For many kids, the time off has been nothing short of a wonderful experience with far less academic and social stress. My recommendation is simply to acknowledge your child’s emotion about the time off and point them toward an optimistic view of the new school year. Help them focus on the positive aspects of seeing friends on a consistent basis and being able to reengage their favorite sport or club. Whatever optimistic view of the world you can build in the life of your family, make sure you focus on the hope inherent in getting back to a normal routine and schedule. When children experience their lives as better today than yesterday, they are more likely to resist depression and anxiety.
Strategy #3: Set a healthy structure
A return to the routine of school attendance and reasonable expectations about things like bedtimes, chores, homework, and extracurricular activities is one of the most positive aspects of being back to school. While you probably have your own schedule that has worked in the past, my encouragement is that you execute the old structure while simultaneously pursuing a new strategy. Choose to empower your kids to find new ways to practice self-care and to control specific aspects of their schedule this fall. For smaller children, maybe you allow yourself to be more flexible about what they eat for lunch or what they wear to school. For older kids, maybe you let them have more flexibility on when they complete homework or what elective they take this semester. Whatever you try, create a structure at home that acknowledges the fact that allowing children to control certain aspects of their life will help them worry less about the things they can’t control, like the mandate to wear masks and social distance.
Strategy #4: Be strong about school attendance
There are some children that are going to have strong anxiety responses about getting back to school. That’s just how they are wired. It’s important for us as parents to make sure that we stay strong with kids that refuse to go to school. The most destructive thing we can do is to give the anxiety about going back to school too much power. The more power we give anxiety, the more power it will try to take in the life of the family. Your best strategy is to acknowledge the anxiety, give your child an opportunity to talk about the anxiety, build healthy coping skills surrounding a focus on optimism, and set the expectation that your child will push through the anxiety. The message to your child here is clear: school attendance in non-negotiable.
Strategy #5: Communicate authentically
This is a crazy moment in time. Don’t try to pretend that it isn’t when you interact with your children about this school year. Acknowledge that any anxiety or emotion they might have about going back to school or even getting the virus is normal and understandable. But as you communicate authentically about the current situation, understand that your role in the life of your children is to communicate hope about their life and their future. In the end, we are going to get through this, and we will be OK. Make sure that you infuse this truth into any conversation that you have with your children about the school year. Communicating that one simple concept is perhaps the most important strategy you can execute to ensure your children have a great school year.