When COVID-19 cases surged last spring, forcing more than 55 million children across the United States out of the classroom and into “remote learning,” parents promised them: This won’t last forever.
But fall is almost here, and for millions of American kids, things are nowhere near back to normal. Districts across the U.S. have opted to start the year remotely; others are welcoming students back no more than three days a week. Sports seasons have been canceled, arts programs are on hold, and children are being told to wear masks and maintain social distance. School this year is very different, and for many children, that is a very big deal.
“While for us as adults, third grade or sixth grade seems like a blip in time, this is real for these kids,” said Meghan Walls, a child psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health. “For kids, this feels really big.”
With that in mind, here is how to help them grapple with those emotions, and start the year on as positive a note as possible.
1. Ask them how they’re feeling.
It is such a simple, obvious step, but experts say it’s one that parents sometimes overlook. “We should really be taking the time to ask them: ‘How are you feeling about this?’” Walls urged.
Really let them tell you. Don’t say: “Are you sad? Are you upset?” she cautioned. Instead, pose it as an open-ended question. (Because remember: Some kids are thriving in this new normal!) Then keep asking those open-ended questions once school begins and throughout the year.
2. Validate those feelings.
Many parents have the urge to fix their children’s problems, but experts say it’s important to fight that impulse. “Let kids know it’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to be sad. Lots of adults are frustrated and sad, too,” said Walls.
Research shows that validating difficult emotions can help children work through them more effectively and develop “EQ,” or emotional intelligence. They’re learning to identify what they are feeling and developing coping strategies that will serve them well throughout their lifetimes.
3. Acknowledge what didn’t work last spring.
If your child had a particularly tough go of it during remote learning last academic year, now is the time to sit down together to make a list of the specific problems he or she faced.
Ask: “How can we make the experience a little more tolerable?” said Melissa Brymer, a psychologist with UCLA Health. Were there younger siblings always interrupting? Did your kiddo feel awkward doing Zoom lessons in front of you or their siblings? Consider things you can control on your end, as well as concerns that your child’s school or teacher can help address on theirs.
It may help to remind your child (and yourself) that teachers have learned a lot about remote learning. Some of the problems they had at first might not be an issue anymore.
“You can highlight that during the summer teachers have been working on different distance learning strategies,” Brymer said. “Can we point out things that are different that would help to excite students?”
“While for us as adults, third grade or sixth grade seems like a blip in time, this is real for these kids.”
– Meghan Walls, Nemours Children’s Health
4. Lean on the school.
When schools closed last spring, parents knew teachers and administrators were overwhelmed and may have shied away from burdening them with what was going on at home, Brymer said.
But she argued that parents should feel comfortable about using teachers and school counselors as resources — because they truly can help children process tough emotions and strategize ways to make this a successful year.
“If your kid was struggling during regular school, you’d go to the school counselor or their teacher and start raising issues early. That can still happen in this remote learning setting,” said Brymer. Don’t think you have to go it alone in making this all work for your kiddo logistically or emotionally.
5. Maintain structure and consistency as much as possible.
If you need to plant your kid in front of a screen for a few hours because it’s the only way you can get work done, that’s one thing. But if you’re being more lax or indulgent about certain things because you think that will help mitigate their disappointment, that is something to pay attention to, Walls cautioned.
“I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve worked with who say, ‘Well, I feel bad, so I’ve let them do X, Y and Z,‘” she said. “But I think that what our kids really need from us right now is this kind of constant, steadfast continuity. There are a lot of unknowns. You want to be the ‘known’ as a parent.”
6. Sell them on this school year.
Parents are worried about the upcoming school year and the enormous challenges it presents on so many fronts: logistics, finances, health and safety. But Walls cautioned against complaining or venting in front of children, who take their cues from adults.
“We need to look at our school plans, we need to take a deep breath, and then we need to present it to our kids as, ‘Hey, here’s what’s going to happen this year. We’ve talked about how it might be disappointing, but we’re going to get through it. And here’s how we’re going to,’” Walls said.
Ultimately, managing any disappointment your child is experiencing is really about striking a balance. Sure, you want to give them time and space to grapple with hard emotions. But you also want to put a positive spin on the year. You want to model resiliency, particularly because whatever school looks like for them when this academic year begins could be very different later on.
“Whether you’re starting remote or starting face-to-face, there might have to be changes,” Brymer said. “Kids want to know that their routines are still going to be in place, and there are going to be safety measures. The more we can let them know that as parents, we are aware that things might change — and that this is how we’ll get through it together — that helps.”
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