What to Expect When Kids Return to School
For many of us who chose the option of in-person learning for our children; it's time. Students are beginning to return to the school building on various plans and timeframes. Some siblings are even on different plans, including my own two sons. We have kept one son virtual and one son hybrid, with the hope that he can return as soon as it's safe to do so. Why the difference? We made each decision based on their mental health. Because they are very different people, ultimately they had different mental health needs.
As a child psychologist, I always have children's mental health in mind. While some students have been doing okay learning remotely, many have not. Children's mental health has suffered as they are missing friends and play interactions, academics have suffered as some have not been able to pay attention to class virtually, and physical health has suffered as many children have not been moving their bodies as much as needed to support their development. In fact, a new (and not surprising) study just showed that remote students are more stressed than their peers who have been learning in-person during the pandemic.
So, when the time comes for children to return, how do we actually talk to them about it? Many of us have been explaining for an entire year that it's safer to stay home and now we are explaining it's safer to return. The CDC has given adults helpful information, and I created the social story "Safely Back to School" to help parents talk to young children about the changes in science and expected safety measures when returning to the classroom.
All adults are ready for this transition. Teachers are ready. Parents are certainly ready. But what about our kids? What can we expect as our children transition back to the building? This, of course, will depend on the age of the student, but I have a few thoughts on what we might expect to see.
Remember how worn out your child was the first week of Kindergarten? Expect that level of fatigue. Not only are kids not used to moving their bodies around a school building, if they are going from online learning, they are also not used to wearing masks and following extra rules. At this point in the year, most students are ready and willing to follow added rules, but added rules take added energy.
Students will not only be tired from following added rules, but also from processing new routines, new sounds, and new adjustments to school spaces. This all takes energy. Kids are incredibly resilient, though. We have learned from many private schools opening this year that most students have been able to adapt to in-person learning with masks and social distancing; it just takes more energy. Expect your child to need more sleep and also to potentially have a shorter emotional fuse that first week or two, which leads me to my next point.
Expect Some Irritability
When we are worn out, we have less emotional stamina to control our reactions to challenging situations. I'm pretty sure the all of humanity learned what their threshold of emotional fatigue was during quarantine. Let's put those lessons to use. What is your child's limit to fatigue? When you see irritability, a need for control, or an emotional meltdown at something your child could handle before, this is a sign that they are emotionally fatigued and need more resources in their tank to get through the day. Communicate your child's fatigue to their teacher and come up with a plan. Again, kids are resilient and most will adapt, but seek professional guidance if your child is becoming aggressive with themselves or anyone else.
Expect Social Interactions to Improve (Slightly)
I'm just going to keep it real with this one. Yes, kids will be able to communicate and play with each other in person, but most kids I have talked with this year who have been learning in person have still reported that it's still not as awesome as socializing pre-COVID. So, while in-person hanging out at a distance with masks is better than Zoom, it's not going to solve everything. Validate that for your child and help them know what to expect. We will eventually get back to a world where we will give unmasks hugs, but we still have some work to do.
Expect Kids to Notice Academic Differences
In my opinion, this is likely the most impactful silver lining of the pandemic: Awareness and respect for the individual differences of students. In America, education is very standardized. Standardization has its benefits including holding students accountable for academic goals and creating an easier way to measure student success. However, those in the special education realm have known for years that individualized education is the only way for some students to make progress. I charge all educators to start with the skills that walk back into their classrooms, because they will likely be all over the map. Our children have been through a lot this year. Relationship first, teaching next.
Some students have kept up with standard curriculum and some have not. Some could have kept up had they been in person, but their executive functioning weaknesses made it nearly impossible to maintain attention and concentration in a virtual learning environment. Parents, assume that your child's skills may vary from pre-COVID times. Let the teacher reach out if they are concerned. Adjust your expectations to equate with "getting back on track" not "catching up," because there is no one to catch up to.
Kids will likely notice that so and so has learned something they haven't or someone else is moving so much faster than they are through an assignment. Validate that everyone has been in COVID-school and that has looked different for everyone. Therefore, it's expected that each student's academic skills are going to vary much more than if they hadn't been learning through a pandemic this school year. When learning environments are not equitable, we cannot expect student outcomes to be the same. Period.
Communicate with Teachers Like Never Before
After a year of adjusting our expectations at work, at home, and for our children's learning environment, we are getting quite good at pivoting. What have you changed this school year that has worked for your child? What have you realized is not working, now that you see it "on the ground" in your home during the school day. Teachers are about to have students walk into their classrooms who they actually don't know as well as they did the last time they saw them in person (that is, if they get the same teacher at all). Go ahead and assume this feels like the first day of the school year and plan accordingly. What do you want your child's teacher to know ? Whatever has been working and not working, now is the time to communicate with your child's education team like never before. All information is helpful information.
Most of all, listen and validate your child's experience of going back to the school building. This is an incredibly hopeful step that many kids have been waiting months to take. It's okay if parts of it are hard, that doesn't mean that it's not worth it. Remind them that it's worth it.
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