Return to School in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Setting Up for Success
In-person, Hybrid, Virtual- and every combination in between. Over the last couple months we have seen an incredible number of families for evaluations, and have heard a slightly different plan from each. Some families have chosen to remain virtual due to vulnerable individuals living in their homes. This is a great option for these families. Other families have chosen to do a hybrid schedule of in-person for a few hours and virtual for the rest of the time in order to promote some level of social interaction but reduce time spent in face-to-face contact with others. This is a great option for these families. Still others have chosen to send their children back to school for all in-person instruction due to parental job expectations or a desire to promote social interaction with classmates. This is a great option for these families...see the theme?
Parents are under an incredible amount of stress in determining the "right" school plan for their children. I want to emphasize that every decision is a good decision. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing the best option, and I support the decisions of parents no matter what they decide. We are in unprecedented times and parents are under enormous amounts of stress. Decisions are hard and there is no guidebook. As a reminder, pop back to my prior blog "Parental Stress in the COVID-19 Pandemic"...we are here for you!
In today's blog, I will provide tips and tricks for parents at home and in school, in order to promote as smooth of a transition back to school as possible.
Congratulations! Your child is going back to school in the coming weeks. I don't have to explain the many ways that in-person school will be different, as you have likely received countless emails from school staff regarding the changes. Here is what I recommend:
Take the time to explain the changes to your child. Particularly for those children who have already been to school (i.e. first grade and older), school is going to look and feel different on day one. Perhaps they will now be eating lunch in their classroom, or perhaps their class will be half the size it was in the past. Most likely, they will be wearing a mask while there. Whatever changes you've been alerted to, prepare your child with what to expect.
Normalize their feelings, as they are likely mixed. Many children have shared excitement with going back to school, but also fear or worry about getting sick or being around friends in a different way. It is perfectly normal to feel excited to begin the school year, but also apprehensive about what exactly to expect or concern that they cannot engage in their "pre-COVID" behaviors with friends (e.g., hugging, high 5s in the hall, etc.)
Engage your child in the school prep process. Whether it is the yearly trip to target or an amazon shopping spree, have your child help to pick out their folders, pencils, pens or supplies. The more we can do things "the way we used to," the less anxiety we promote in our children.
Practice mask wearing/hand sanitizing/not touching our faces at home, and perhaps provide choices of different masks to try. Even in my own practice, I found that not all masks fit all faces. The more we can normalize mask wearing and good hygiene practices, the more likely the child is to keep their mask on their face and to keep their hands clean. I have assessed 5-year-olds successfully who wore the mask the whole day. The key is preparation and finding the right fit for your child.
Maintain a routine when they get home. Consistency is key!
Congratulations! Your child will be learning from home via virtual instruction in the coming weeks. While they may be somewhat familiar with how this went back in March and the end of the prior school year, there was far less time to prepare for this transition. We have now had some time to experience what works and what does not, and to make small tweaks or major overhauls to how virtual learning went last year.
Set the stage for successful learning. Determine your child's learning spot in the home, and set it up as their virtual classroom space. Now, this does not mean you have to go out and spend a fortune on a fancy desk and special chair. Perhaps your child is using the dining room table for school. I have seen families who decorated a trifold presentation board or used an amazon box to make a "classroom" space (see photo above). Add a cup with some pens, pencils and other school supplies, and you are set! Allow your child to decorate his "classroom" or "office" space (e.g., use magazine cut-outs to decorate the inside of the trifold or box). When the trifold is up, class or work is in-session. When the trifold is removed, the dining room returns to its original function.
Reduce distractions. There is plenty going on at home- perhaps there are siblings, pets, parents working remotely, delivery people, cleaning people- the list goes on. It may be worthwhile to invest in some type of white noise machine (or download a white noise app) to help your child tune out distractions. Headphones can also be a good option. Needless to say, toys and games should be kept in a separate space from the formal learning space.
Maintain a routine and perhaps use a visual schedule for quick reminders. Get up at the same time, have breakfast, get dressed, take a shower and prepare for school as if it were in-person. It is important to change out of our pajamas and "feel" as close to school-like activities as possible. One potential change may be the time when a child is typically on the bus. Perhaps this time can be substituted with a walk outside or some physical activity to get some early morning wiggles out. Exercise in the morning has a multitude of benefits, so start those health habits early!
Create home classroom "rules" with your child. Many teachers start the year by determining classroom rules, and home classrooms can follow this lead! Is it okay to get up and move about during lessons? Is the entire pantry available for snack time options? Headphones need to be used at all times? Home classroom rules set clear expectations for success.
Teach your child how to connect with his/her teacher when questions or difficulties arise. There are often ways a child can raise his or her virtual hand or get help from teachers BEFORE running down the hall to mom or dad. Empower your child from the start by teaching them to problem solve or connect with their teacher for support. Over time, this is a win-win for both parent and child.
Create an age-appropriate reward system for on-task behavior. Perhaps you have a marble jar and your child earns a marble for every lesson they complete independently. Perhaps you prefer cotton balls or legos or other toys in a cup. Can your child earn a dessert of their choosing when their cup is full? Perhaps they earn an extra half hour at the park? Determine with your child the reward (we all work for a paycheck after all), and promote positive on-task behavior from the start!
Accept that not all things will work perfectly. Internet issues? Forms not downloading? Remember that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and therefore things are still unpredictable and at times frustrating. Did your child miss math instruction? Have him or her join you when cooking dinner later. Fractions can be taught through baking or measuring ingredients. Did your child miss the language arts lesson on parts of a story? Grab a book before bed and talk about the aspects of a story that make it compelling. Had a busy day yourself and couldn't return to some of the day's lessons? That is perfectly okay. You are not a bad parent and you are doing your best. Take a moment to regroup in the evening, and try for a better day tomorrow.
Those families who are choosing the hybrid option can benefit from suggestions listed in both of the above categories. Overall, I'd encourage balance and acceptance in these extremely stressful times. Whether we like it or not, there is a high likelihood of change in the coming months and our job as parents is to "ride the wave" and navigate the ups and downs as best we can. Dr. Morgan and I wish all families a safe and successful start to the school year!