Helping Kids Transition Back To School

Written by Mackenzie Howard

It goes without saying that the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year were BEASTS- and that is putting it lightly. From dealing with being abruptly placed in lockdowns to adjusting to wearing masks to the heightened anxiety of being sick, we have all been through it!

As adults, we have a greater understanding of living in a pandemic, the progress we have made, and how much farther we have to go. Kids- especially those in elementary school- have struggled to make sense of the changes that have occurred over the past year and half and understandably have concerns about what the upcoming school year will look like.

This post will provide adults with practical tools to help kids work through their anxiety and feel as prepared as possible as they go back to school in the Fall.
 
Prior to joining KKJ Forensic and Psychological Services, I worked as a School Counselor for five and half years, so much of this information is based on my professional experience.

Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the number of students that self-reported increased anxiety was much higher than previous years. The anxiety came from many different things, but the top three reasons were (1) feeling disconnected from friends (2) concern for themselves/family/friends contracting COVID-19 and (3) feeling unprepared academically.

1) Feeling Disconnected From Friends
Whether your child attended school virtually or in person, maintaining peer relationships was extremely difficult this year. Most children did not have the ability to meet up with their friends outside of school regularly due to the pandemic. When children could be together at school, there were limits placed on their interactions. They had to maintain social distance, wear masks, and (for some schools) were not allowed to share play equipment/toys. Those children who remained remote for the school year only interacted with peers during virtual class which limited opportunities for nonacademic conversation. Although all these restrictions were put in place for our safety, they still had negative repercussions for kids socially.
 
While there’s hope that these restrictions will be relaxed, it’s a good idea to let kids know that things will probably still look a little different this year. Be on the lookout for information from your district/school regarding COVID-19 protocols and discuss it with your kids. Remind them that these rules are put in place to ensure that everyone is safe. Invite your kids to ask questions and include them in the preparation- just as you would school supply shopping.

2) Concern for themselves/friends/family contracting COVID-19
Validation goes a long way with kids. Too often, children are told by adults- both explicitly and implicitly- that what they are feeling is not real or important. All the time, but especially at a time like this, it is vital that we recognize their feelings and process their concerns. Honesty is always necessary. It would be disingenuous for us to tell kids that they will never have to worry about their loved ones (or themselves) getting COVID-19. Consider letting children know that yes, COVID-19 is real and yes, it is possible for anyone to get sick at any time. As with any illness, there are things that we can do to keep ourselves healthy and try to protect ourselves. Invite them to develop a list of actions we can take to stop the spread of COVID-19 (i.e., washing our hands, wearing facemasks, covering our coughs and sneezes, staying home when we feel sick, etc.)

Explain that although life looks different now, we do not have to stop living. We can continue to have fun and make memories in a safe and responsible way.

3) Feeling Unprepared Academically
While there were many students who did not suffer much academically this year, there were just as many- if not more- who experienced a decline in academic performance this year. Students expressed anxiety around whether or not they would pass the school year and how they will perform in the next grade. It is typical for students, especially those in middle and high school, to feel anxious about their grades. For the 2020-21 school year, students were asked to come to school -in person or remotely- in the midst of a collective trauma and under the veil of uncertainty.

Kids have a lot of feelings to process around this and the best way we can provide support for them is to listen, validate, and empower. We do this by holding space for them to share their concerns without judgement. It can be an automatic response to want to tell our kids that they should not feel the way they do. We don’t mean this in a dismissive way, rather we are often trying to make them feel better and let them know that we believe in them. We can convey that message with more clarity by validating their feelings. It can also be helpful to connect with your child’s teacher(s) and school counselor to give them a heads up around your child’s anxiety. If school staff, especially the school counselor, knows about your concerns ahead of time, they can be proactive in supporting and advocating for your child.

Recognizing that everyone has different opinions around the COVID-19 Pandemic, I encourage readers to take what they need from this article and leave the rest. Navigating a pandemic is a new experience for all of us, and it can be even more difficult with children. At the end of the day, all we can do is the best we can do for ourselves, our families, and the world around us. This will look different for everyone and that is okay. Find what works for you!

If you feel that you or your child(ren) needs additional support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of the therapists at KKJ. We are here to help! You can reach me at mackenzie@kkjpsych.com.

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parenting, school


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