You’ve dreamt of the day your child would be back in a classroom, surrounded by their teacher and kids their age, all interacting, playing at recess and enjoying lunch together.
But then you’re reminded that even though COVID-19 cases are dropping and more people are getting vaccinated each day, the pandemic is not over, and students still need to take extra precautions at school.
Not to mention that for many students, it’s been more than a year since they’ve been in a classroom. For the students returning to campus over the next few weeks in Los Angeles Unified or elsewhere, they’ll soon be spending part of, if not the entire day, with classmates they’ve only ever seen online. And for some, it will be their first time to step foot on that campus.
For your child, the excitement of being back at school could soon give way to feelings of trepidation. “Are the campuses safe? Will the other kids like me? Have I fallen behind academically?” they may wonder.
We talked to a few health and educational experts about what you, as a parent, can do to support your child as they transition to in-person learning. Below is their take on the matter.
Establish a routine
If you haven’t already, experts suggest you establish a routine. Enforce a bed time and have them get up the next morning at an appropriate hour so their body gets used to the time they would have to wake up to get ready for school.
“Start setting those bed times, start getting them up early so that they’re used to that so they’re not feeling so sluggish,” said Dr. Luis Sandoval, a psychiatrist who works at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Santa Ana. “If we can get back into that (routine), that helps with the anxiety.”
Dr. Daisy Dodd, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who splits her time between Kaiser’s Irvine and Anaheim medical centers, suggests getting children, particularly young ones, used to wearing a mask for hours at a time, as they’ll be expected to do that on campus. Families can practice wearing masks at home to reinforce the importance of mask wearing and to get young children used to how it feels.
“Get them into the habit,” of mask wearing, she said, adding that parents could make or purchase masks that show off their kids’ favorite color or character so they’ll be more excited to wear them.
She also stresses reminding children about the need to maintain social distance and proper hand hygiene.
It’s tempting for kids to want to run up and hug a friend, especially if they haven’t seen them in a year. One way parents can help young children understand why they must resist this urge, Dodd suggests, is by saying “there is this bug that they can get and make them sick and we’re concerned if they bring them home. And we cannot sit next to our favorite friend because we have to keep this bug away from us.”
Give your child space
It’s natural for a child to have the jitters about returning to school. Parents should allow their children time to adjust and not simply dive right back into their studies, experts say.
“Before they jump into the academics, let them have that time to get re-acclimated,” said Jewel Forbes, an administrator with the Los Angeles County Office of Education who specializes in providing mental health services and counseling.
She and Sandoval say the focus the first few weeks back at school should be on students’ social-emotional and mental wellbeing.
If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can remind them about the positive aspects of returning to school, like seeing their friends in person or reminding them of extracurricular activities they may be able to resume, Forbes said.
But she also encourages parents to allow their children to express any nervousness or other emotions they’re feeling and not to dismiss them.
For young children who may not have the vocabulary to express their thoughts, coming up with activities where they can illustrate what’s on their mind through art or by having them point at an emoji that represents how they feel might be helpful, she said.
And if there were any activities your family picked up during the pandemic, such as a game night or walks around the neighborhood, experts suggest you keep up these traditions. This can help children retain a sense of familiarity even as they’re adjusting to a new school environment.
“Give your kid something to look forward to so that while they’re transitioning to school, at least they have something to hold on to,” Sandoval said.
Another strategy, Sandoval said, is to sit down with your child before the first day of in-person learning and ask them to jot down some goals for the rest of the school year. Ask what they’re looking forward to about being back on campus and what they anticipate as potential roadblocks. That way, by the time they actually return, they will have established a road map to help them navigate school.
Learning to socialize
Don’t be surprised if your child feels they’ve forgotten how to interact with a teacher or their peers in person, or how to behave in a classroom.
“Being away from school for a year, at first they might feel like they don’t remember how to make friends, but that’s going to come naturally,” Sandoval said.
At the same time, he’s empathetic to how difficult this adjustment period can be for students. One’s old friend before the pandemic may no longer be their friend, and kids will worry about whether they’ll be accepted by their peers and may concern themselves with whether they’re wearing the “right” clothes or how their classmates perceive them — issues they perhaps managed to avoid during remote learning.
While it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, Sandoval wants to remind parents of adolescents and young adults to give them the space to work out their emotions.
“Let the kid have some breathing room. Right now, they’re trying to establish their independence. … Give them time to do that, but watch for their moods,” he said.
In some respects, returning to campus may be even more difficult for middle and high school students because of the emphasis on being accepted by one’s peers, Forbes said. She warns parents that older students may experience greater anxiety, as they feel the weight of trying to be accepted by their peers on top of the pressure of doing well academically because college is around the corner.
Like Sandoval, she encourages parents to “check in” with their children but cautions them against forcing a conversation.
“You want for them to come to you on their terms,” she said.
Seek out help
“It’s OK if your kid seems a little depressed, a little down at first,” Sandoval said of the adjustment period. “But after about two weeks to a month, if you start to notice that they’re not acting like themselves anymore – not finding enjoyment in things, don’t be afraid to ask them what’s going on in school.”
He urges parents to not be afraid to ask their children how they feel about life and if they’ve thought about harming themselves. There’s nothing wrong with seeking professional help, he said.
Forbes recommends soothing music and breathing exercises to help calm the mind and nerves.
Most importantly, she said, parents should not have to feel like they’re going through this alone.
“If you need some additional resources, seek out school counselors,” she said. “We’re all partners in this work, and we all care about our children.”