As some schools reopen for in-person learning, parents are facing a whole new back-to-school to-do list. This includes teaching children how to reduce the risk of contracting 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), adapt to new routines, handle awkward and potentially risky social interactions, and cope with worries and anxiety.
So along with paper and pencils, parents are packing backpacks with hand sanitizer and face masks. But teaching children to be responsible for their own safety is the most important way parents can prepare their children for returning to the classroom.
Whether your child’s school is planning for traditional schooling five days a week, a hybrid model of some in-person and some online schooling, or going completely online, there is a lot to prepare for. Back to school is always a time of transition, and this year we can expect it to be even more of a roller coaster ride as children (and parents!) adjust to new routines.
So, what can you do now to ease the transition and prepare your child for what school will look like when class begins?
- Have an open conversation: Ask your child about their feelings — both the excitement and the concerns — about starting school. Are they excited about seeing friends? Worried about getting sick? Some of both? Ask what they know about COVID-19 and how it may impact their school year. Share what you know about what options your school is offering or considering.Talk to your child with their age and maturity level in mind. The way you’ll explain things to a kindergarten student will differ from a high school student. Listen to their concerns, reassure them that you and school leaders are trying to do what’s best, and let them know everyone needs to be flexible as the situation changes.
- Get into a routine: After months of remote learning and the summertime hiatus from school, many children will struggle with getting into a new routine. Families may also find it difficult to adjust and align their schedules, especially with a mix of online and in-person learning being used by many schools.It is recommended to create a calendar that outlines which days are online versus in-person learning, and then break down what will happen during each of those days. Colour code these planners according to school activities vs extra home activities vs online. Let your child get involved in keeping these planners up to date with when their friends might visit (even if this is an online play date) or if they have extra lessons.
- Practise safer behaviours now: Teach and reinforce everyday preventive actions such as washing hands regularly or wearing a mask for longer periods at home. Teach your child to wash their hands before they leave and when they get home; before and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after sneezing or blowing their nose.Instead of a harsh change, for example going from not wearing a mask at all at home during the summer, to wearing one for 8 hours a day at school, encourage your child to start practicing safer behaviours now. Most children (even the youngest) can be gradually taught to wear a mask properly. Start practicing now to help your child become more comfortable and ease the transition back to school.Perhaps they can watch an hour of TV or play an hour of games online if they wear their mask. Consider creating a schedule with times assigned to school work, reading, relaxing, etc. and adding more activities to the “mask-wearing” list every few days. By gradually increasing the amount of time your child properly wears their mask, your child (and you) will feel more confident when they return to school with peers.
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4. Help your child stay active: Regular physical activity can improve your child’s physical and mental health. Ensure your child stays active every day while taking everyday preventive actions.Find ways to make physical activity a part of your child’s life. Set a positive example by leading an active lifestyle yourself and making physical activity a part of your family’s daily routine.
5. Help your child stay socially connected: Reach out to friends and family via phone or video chats. Write cards or letters to family members who they may not be able to visit. Check to see if your child’s school has tips and guidelines to help support social and emotional needs of your child.
6. Let your child know that you are there for them: Reassure your child that if any problems arise at school, you will be there to help resolve them. Leave a note in your child’s lunchbox that will remind them you’re thinking of them while they’re at school.
7. Help your child cope with stress: Even in the absence of a pandemic, the return to school can trigger anxiety in children and adolescents. Signs of anxiety include a decline in academic performance; change in eating habits; the inability to fall asleep until very late at night, and then the struggle to wake up; excessive feelings of guilt and restlessness; avoiding friends; and a change in mood such as irritability, tantrums, or emotional outbursts. Stomach aches, nausea, headaches, and obsessive behaviours such as perfectionism when performing tasks can also indicate that your child is struggling.
With the pandemic, some children will be scared about going to school, being around friends, or being outdoors at all, especially without a parent there to provide reassurance. Try some of the following:
⇒ help your child identify their worries and fears, and then provide child-friendly, fact-based information to address those issues
⇒ reassure your child that their teachers and parents will be there to help
⇒ encourage your child to take “coping breaks” when they feel anxious, such as deep breathing, doodling for a few minutes, counting to a certain number, imagining a favourite place, or repeating coping statements such as, “It’s normal to be nervous, but I’m OK, and I’ll make it through the day”
Encourage your child to tell you about how their worries affected them at school, and seek out extra help from a school counsellor or teacher if needed.
8. Last thought: Remember there is no right or wrong way to go about returning to school in these stressful times. At the end of the day, if you or your child is extremely anxious about returning to in-person learning, gather all the facts available to you, trust your instincts, and make a decision that feels right for your circumstances.
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