As a school psychologist and parent, I am often asked to share my thoughts on the first day of school, but having the first day of school fall in March is new to me and all of us. With some students returning to in-person learning after almost a year of virtual school, children and families may be feeling anxious or even afraid.
We have yet to fully understand the potential impact of this last year on the academic skills and mental health of students, but we do know that in-person learning is needed and benefits most children. So what can we do to help our children transition smoothly and with success?
Promote safety. After a year of heightened vigilance and precautionary measures, some parents and children may be understandably fearful. Students were told they could not go to school because of the risk of infection, and now that we are returning, some children may still be wary.
It is important to put the fear into perspective and explain the current health situation in terms your child can understand. The conversation with a first grader will look a lot different than one with a sixth grader, but it’s important that we, as parents, give them as much information as they need to be safe.
Students are most likely to benefit from in-person instruction if they feel safe. It may be helpful to explain the precautions the school has implemented to welcome them back as well as the individual steps a child can take to stay safe. Reiterating why precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing are in place and how they help slow the spread of the virus can help children understand the situation and make them feel that they are a part of the solution.
Preparation and flexibility. Be clear with your kids what they can expect as they return to school. Things will likely look much different than when they left last March. Prepare them for what the physical layout will look like (desks will be spaced apart), what the schedule will look like (less switching of classes), new school bus rules, lunchtime routines, and so forth. If your child is able to predict what changes will look like, it will increase feelings of safety.
Attention and patience. Remember that it may take a while for children to adapt to in-person learning. Skills related to attention, concentration, and impulse control — such as raising their hand or taking a turn — are similar to muscles that strengthen as they are used. Parents and teachers should be patient with students, as they may have not practiced the skills of focused sustained attention in environments with other students in some time.
Social connection. Many children have not interacted with peers in some time and will now be doing so with masks and social distancing. This can be especially difficult for children who may have already struggled with social interaction. Encourage ways that children can be social while practicing social distancing and ask them about their interactions when they get home and how they feel about their “friends” and “classmates.”
As parents, the best thing we can do to ease the transition is to deal with our own anxiety about the situation so we can act as a role model for our kids and showcase ways they can stay safe.
We can also focus on the positive aspects of returning to in-person learning, such as seeing friends and teachers and returning to the routines we may have missed. It is also essential to remain in contact with the school and ask about the plan on assessing skills and remediating any skills that may have been impacted as a result of the pandemic.
Finally, remember that kids are surprisingly resilient. This will be a tough transition but they will get through it. We all will.
Jessica Glass Kendorski is an associate professor and chair of the department of school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM).