It's the start of a school year like no other. Now that September is here, schools across the UK have fully flung open their doors to all students for the first time since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It's fair to say it's been a weird and troubling year. While it won't be "business as usual" for quite some time, children are now facing the uncertain reality of returning to everyday classes during a pandemic.
If you're a parent, you're sure to have some concerns. Preparing your children for this colossal life change after months of lockdown and homeschooling is no easy feat. So, where do you start and how should you talk to your kids? At POPSUGAR, we've enlisted the help of the experts to guide the way and offer their best advice.
First Things First, Practice Mindful Parenting
Before you consider how your children feel about this change, take a moment to acknowledge your own emotions. When you speak to your kids about going back to school, you need to be calm and collected. Practicing mindful parenting means staying grounded and in the moment.
"This pandemic is hard on everyone, and parents especially are experiencing almost unprecedented levels of stress. Interacting with your child can be a refuge from your worries about the future," said Tasha Seiter, a marriage and family therapist.
"When with your child, take the opportunity to practice mindfulness, staying in the present moment to listen deeply to them. Be with your child. You can allow all of the mind chatter in your head to just be there as you focus your attention on your child in a way that is nonjudgemental and full of curiosity. Your child will feel soothed, and you might even discover something new!" Seiter said.
"Your children will need a lot of support when they are returning to school. You have to remember that they have seen all the negative press as much as you have, so they will understand what is going on and know at the very least it is going to be scary."
Initiate an Open Conversation
Is there an elephant in the room? Ahead of the big day, your kids may be feeling anxious and stressed. However, not all children know how to vocalise their fears, and some may push them down. As a parent, you need to realise this and start the dialogue.
"It is important for parents to open up the lines of communication with their children. Parents can initiate conversations, ask questions, and normalise conversations about how different things might seem," said Jessica Marie Ortiz, M.S.W., Ed.M., a licensed clinical social worker.
"Parents can start a conversation by acknowledging that school is going to feel different this year and that it is normal to have all kinds of feelings about changes like this," Ortiz said. "You can say there might be things that are hard for parents, too, and that it is OK for everyone to feel frustrated at times when adjusting. You can also ask if they have any questions or strong feelings about starting school."
Be Honest About the Negatives
Avoid tiptoeing around the topic. The pandemic is going to have a massive impact on your child's school life. You can't ignore that, nor should you. While you may be tempted to brush over the negatives and hope for the best, confronting them could be better for your child.
"By starting with acknowledgment of the negatives, your child will 'cross the concern or complaint' off of their mental checklist and be more open to hearing about the positives," said Dea Dean, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
"For example, say 'I'm imagining you're discouraged you won't be able to freely play with friends like you have in years past, and while that's going to be different and possibly hard at times, I'm so excited that you will be able to be together while also being safe.'"
Listen to Your Children's Concerns
Chances are that your children will have some concerns they want to share. Your gut reaction may be to calm their fears by denying that a problem exists. However, this approach is likely to mean your children feel unheard or scared. Be open and hear what they have to say.
"If you want kids to come to you, they need to feel you're open to hearing their worries, feelings, and concerns," Ortiz said. "It can be hard to really listen without minimising, dismissing, or overidentifying with your kids. If you minimise or dismiss their worries, you risk shutting your kid down or making them feel isolated after trying to share something sensitive to them."
"Parents have a strong influence on their kids and are a key factor in their kids' attitudes and experiences. It is incredibly important that parents manage their reactions so that they minimally impact their child."
Manage Your Own Reactions
Naturally, you will have a load of feelings about your children returning to school. This is as huge a milestone for you as it is for them. You may be stressed, worried, or scared about how things will go down. However, the last thing you want to do is let these emotions impact them negatively.
"Managing parents' own reactions and expectations are key in helping kids adjust to school in uncertain times. Parents have a strong influence on their kids and are a key factor in their kids' attitudes and experiences. It is incredibly important that parents manage their reactions so that they minimally impact their child," Ortiz said.
"Communicating strong opinions frequently and negatively — even venting, sarcasm, or exasperation — isn't positive and runs the risk of the child feeling anxious, stressed, or [like they're] an inconvenience. Parents can work to minimise their influence on their children by being aware of their attitudes and how they tend to express them."
Help Them Prepare For the Realities of School
Let's not overlook the logistics here. While you should account for your children's emotional well-being, you also have to consider the realities of them returning to school. The classroom is going to be a whole new world for your kids. They may not know what is expected of them or how things will be different. Take a moment to help them prepare for the changes that will come.
"Your children will need a lot of support when they are returning to school. You have to remember that they have seen all the negative press as much as you have, so they will understand what is going on and know at the very least it is going to be scary," said Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, a general practitioner and family doctor.
"Teach them about hygiene precautions, such as washing their hand and not touching other children, so that they can feel safer about going back to school. You can be the support that they need, so please make sure to give them the time to do so."
Give Them Tools to Protect Themselves
What's more, children will be faced with new challenges at school. Maintaining social distancing is hard for younger kids, and they may not understand where the boundaries are. Before you drop them off, approach this issue and make a game out of it.
"Role play with your kids. Pretend you are their classmate and come close to them asking to borrow a pencil. Ask your child what she would do in that situation," said Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills-based child psychologist, family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
"Question your son or daughter on how they would handle it if their buddy runs up to them and grabs their football out of their hands. Make up real-life situations, and get your kids to think in advance about what they would say or do to protect themselves while preserving a friendship. Equip them with the necessary self-care tools and strategies they will need before the real situation arises. Your child and you will be glad you did."
Finally, Offer Your Child a Safe Space
Above all else, understand that you are a sounding board for your kids. Give your child, or children, the room to vent their concerns and ask questions as and when they need. This period is sure to be a difficult one for you all. With that in mind, you need to make it clear to them that you will always be there to help them.
"Be the kind of person that they want to talk to about any uncertainties they might be facing. This means offering compassion and empathy to your child when they are having a hard time. Let your kid, or kids, know that it's OK to feel however they are feeling, and you are there for whatever they might need," Seiter said.
"You can't expect your child to open up unless it is a rewarding experience, where they feel heard and cared for. But when they do, it's magic."