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10 Tips For Navigating Another Unprecedented School Year

Written by Children and Screens

Photography by Photographed by McKinsey Jordan

As students, teachers, and parents look ahead to another school year full of pandemic uncertainty, they may be finding it difficult to prepare. Some families are anxious about children heading back to in-person learning unvaccinated, while others are concerned about kids starting behind on their studies. With some states reintroducing social distancing restrictions and mask requirements, parents are also worried about the implications of more time in virtual classrooms.

How do we support our children as they start fresh this fall? Children and Screens has invited several distinguished researchers, psychologists, and others to share their advice on everything from adjusting to a new routine to alleviating anxieties and staying healthy. Check out their 10 back to school tips for another unprecedented year below!

1. Re-pack Your Backpack

This year’s back-to-school backpack looks a little bit different than in years past. “Help your kids create a personal safety kit to keep in their backpacks, with extra masks, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes that your child can use to help keep their work areas clean,” suggests Daybreak Health Clinical Director Allyson Holmes-Knight, PhD. “Labeling all of your child’s personal belongings will help prevent them from getting their school supplies mixed with others. Be sure to talk openly with your children about how they can protect themselves. This includes demystifying any rumors or false information they may have heard.”

2. Plan, Pace, and Play

According to Clinical Psychologist Sarah Parry, D.Clin.Psy, the uncertainty that kids are experiencing this year can be balanced by appropriate planning, pacing, and play. “We understand the importance of predictability and stability—both of which can be threatened during times of transition,” Parry explains. “However, when suitable plans are in place, ‘anchors’ of predictability and stability can be identified and applied to help children feel safe during periods of change.” Relationships, Parry adds, can also be bridges to resilience. “Mutually respectful and trusting relationships between parents, educators and children can form bridges between problems and solutions.”

3. Talk About Feelings 

It’s important for parents and educators to focus on children’s mental health this fall. “We’ve gone through a collective trauma, and we’re going to need to approach things a bit differently this year,” says Neha Chaudhary, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “This means making the space for safe conversations about mental health, and assisting kids in getting the right kind of help when needed, whether it’s practicing coping skills, or seeing a therapist or psychiatrist for an evaluation.”

4. Talk About Tech

If social distancing measures require it, children in some school districts may need to return to virtual learning, and parents and educators should be prepared to make the most of it. “First and foremost, check whether you have all the right technology capabilities,” suggests Lakshmi Mahadevan, PhD, Associate Professor at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service. She recommends meeting with your child’s teacher and advises parents to “prepare questions about expected classroom activities, collect everyone’s contact information during the meeting, and check whether you have access to all documents, whether they be virtual or hard copy.” Preparation and communication are essential in making the most of online learning.

5. Less Can Be More

When kids are facing difficulty at school, parents shouldn’t feel responsible for filling the role of “teacher” at home. “Keep in mind that ‘less is more’ when practiced consistently,” says Daniela Fontenelle-Tereshchuk, PhD, of the University of Calgary. “Short, simple, and consistent activities suitable to each family’s unique dynamic may be more effective than trying to cover the whole curriculum at home. Ask your child’s teacher about the main things your child is struggling with and how you can help.”

6. Be Calm As We Carry On

According to Jeffrey Gardere, PhD, Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, it is important for parents to model calmness and confidence in preparing our kids for school re-entry. “The last thing we should be doing as parents is passing fear and anxiety down to our children who have already been through the most challenging time of their education and lives due to COVID,” he says. “Families should practice and role play how to follow COVID protocols, in a serious but fun and entertaining way.” Rehearsing and modeling will make a huge difference for “keeping our kids in the right and safer frame of mind to go back into the new normal of school, with a healthier and less fearful attitude.”

7. Take It Slow

“Everyone is understandably nervous about the start of another uncertain school year, and children will be looking to the adults in their lives for reassurance and guidance,” says Phyllis Fagell, LCPC, school counselor and author of Middle School Matters. “They may need help setting realistic expectations, particularly if they struggled on the virtual learning platform or feel disconnected from friends they haven’t seen in person for more than a year.” Fagell recommends encouraging children to take it slowly and work on building back up to their pre-pandemic schedules, to ensure they get plenty of sleep, and reminding them that it might take some time before they find their place in their friend groups again. She notes, “If kids are feeling more sensitive, they may be more impulsive, so help them regulate their emotions when they experience a social blow so they don’t do something they’ll regret.”

8. Compassion Comes First

Children need to feel safe and secure in order to do their personal best in the classroom. “As parents, we can be mindful and meet our children where they are,” says parenting journalist, author, educator, and nonprofit founder Donna Tetreault. “If a child is fearful, unsure, or concerned about going back to school, as parents we should think about ‘connection’ and ‘compassion’ first.” Tetreault reminds parents to allow children to feel their emotions and to “listen to them—really listen—and then, if needed, ask ‘how can I help you?’ Taking the time to connect and show your child unconditional love will give them the security they need in order to feel stable during these very challenging times.”

9. Prepare Early for Success

It’s important for children to take responsibility for getting ready to go to school, though it’s ultimately a collaboration between kids and parents. “It should actually start the night before, with making sure uniforms are ready to be worn and bags are packed,” says Nicola Yelland, PhD, Professor of Early Childhood Studies at the University of Melbourne. Dr. Yelland encourages parents to help children learn to organize their assignments and keep up with deadlines. “Many schools provide children with a diary in which they record what needs to be done, so parents should plan early and ensure that they are familiar with the system that operates in their school and what is expected of them.”

10. Empowered Advocacy

As Dr. Beth Tarasawa, Executive Vice President of Research at NWEA, points out, the pandemic interrupted learning and exacerbated opportunity gaps for millions of students in the US and across the globe. “Parents of students with learning and attention issues have been among the most vocal advocates pushing school district and state decision makers to use funding and resources in ways that address the needs of students with disabilities,” Tarasawa says. “This type of parental advocacy is needed now more than ever. More specifically, parents can advocate that schools meet the physical, mental, and emotional needs of children, improve distance learning, ensure equitable funding, and provide acceleration opportunities.” For additional resources please visit the National PTA and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

It’s safe to say that this school year will be unlike any other, which means it’s important for families to be patient, adaptable, and empathetic. Whether your school has returned to in-person education, is continuing online learning, or is somewhere in-between, parents need to make time to communicate honestly and openly with their kids to help ensure that they’re getting the most out of their education. While it won’t always be easy, it will always be worth it.

Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, head over to childrenandscreens.com.

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