Dr. Margi McCombs: Back to school jitters – 3 ways to help children regain a sense of normalcy

After a year of many losses, it’s time to help our kids regain and build new ground

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After a year of many losses, it’s time to help our kids regain and build new ground. 

"Hey Finn," I said to my 10-year-old grandson while we ran errands. "How do you feel about starting school again?" He shrugged. "Well, I guess I’m excited about seeing my friends, but I wonder if I’ll be safe? I’m too young to get a vaccine. I mean, that’s why we had to learn at home in the first place, right?"  

For parents and children alike, the past 18 months have been a time of great loss in our social networks, our activities, our learning, and our overall mental health. Even in the best of times, children have anxiety as they grow up. Looking to their families, friends and educators for stability, they rely heavily on us to offer them certainty and a foundation to cope with a changing world. 

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But for over a year, many of us have been in survival mode – balancing work, family, remote learning, health and more – while we’ve tried to raise resilient children who can emerge stronger on the other side of a global pandemic. 

According to the Children’s Hospital Association, kids have faced strong effects from the past year and a half: watching adults navigate stress, possibly losing a loved one, developmental issues, educational inequality, and fewer wellness checks to name just a few. Additionally, a Lurie Children’s Hospital poll revealed, "71% of parents believe the pandemic has taken a toll on their child’s mental health, 69% say the pandemic is the worst thing to happen to their child, and 67% wish they’d been more vigilant about their child’s mental health from the beginning." 

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If all seems dismal, it isn’t. According to the same report, we have something to celebrate: Of the parents polled, "87% said they are spending more quality time with their children and 78% said they are showing more affection to their children than before the pandemic." 

This is the foundation upon which we can build a generation of children who are resilient and can withstand challenges that will create a firmer foundation for their future. The experience over the next few months of bouncing back and restarting school will stay with them for the rest of their lives.   

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As our children head back to school, we want to help them flourish in unexpected ways, and we do this by first recognizing where they are.  

Here are three ways we can help our children emotionally rebound and start the school year well. 

First, help them build trust. 

COVID-19 led to a shutdown of nearly all school buildings in K-12 across the United States in the spring of 2020. One minute, our kids were engaging in school activities, after-school sports, playdates and camps. The next, everything was closed. 

As parents, we want to protect our kids. But with an unknown virus circling the globe, we simply haven’t known how best to do that. As our own fears rose, so too did our children’s. With schools now reopening, the biggest hurdle we face is helping our kids feel safe again. When children don’t feel safe, anxiety can build and bubble over.  

The best way to assess how our kids are feeling is to ask questions. 

One of the first steps we can take to help rebuild the trust of children who have been hearing trusted family members tell them they can’t go to school or to play with friends is simply to listen. Even as adults, we’re grappling with different aspects of returning to society after being told it was unsafe – we can’t expect children to suddenly understand why it’s OK to go back to the classroom. We need to acknowledge and address their fears and questions.  

Second, help them build self-confidence.  

In a more typical year, children often feel uncertain about going back to school. Especially for introverted or shy children, the busy activities of school can feel overwhelming. This past year has added the strain of learning loss, and isolation has resulted in increased social anxiety. Although we’ve collectively done our best to create remote learning environments and online social connections, many of our kids have nonetheless felt like they were losing ground.  

As children head back to school, one of the best things we can do is help them feel they are prepared for what lies ahead. We must remind them of their strengths and speak words of encouragement to them.  

On a practical level, parents can build a strong foundation by reaching out to the school about ways to catch up if learning loss has occurred, opportunities for meet-and-greet days for kids and teachers, and protocol for helping kids who are struggling academically and socially.  

Third, keep open communication.  

The best way to assess how our kids are feeling is to ask questions. What are you afraid of? What are you looking forward to? What do you think will be different or the same? The only way to know how our kids are feeling about going back to school is to ask them and to create an environment that invites open communication.  

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If nothing else, this past year has allowed us to spend more time with our children. This is a critical foundation for creating open communication. Now is a good time for parents to reflect on how much they’ve learned about their kids. Yes, the past year has been hard, but can we see something good that has emerged as well? COVID-19 has cracked the treasure boxes of our kids’ hearts open, and we have found gems inside. 

Keep talking. Keep speaking words of life into your children as school begins. Keep providing a safe space for them to grow physically, emotionally, and socially. And above all, keep being curious and invested in your children. They need you now more than ever.  

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