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Ask the Expert: How Can I Prepare My Child to Go Back to In-Person Schooling?

A small child hugs a caregiver goodbye in front of a school bus.
A small child hugs a caregiver goodbye in front of a school bus.
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Many children have a hard time starting school, either for the first time or after a long summer break. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic with schools shutting down off and on and some only reopening part-time if at all, parents face a new challenge in sending off children, who have grown accustomed to long stretches at home, to school. We spoke to pediatric anxiety expert Dr. Joseph McGuire, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, about how to prepare your child to go back to school.

Q: Parents already face the challenge of getting kids ready for back to school in August or September. How are the challenges similar to going back after a school shutdown?
A: Some of the challenges involve setting up a new routine. In summertime, it’s usually a mix of family time and time with friends, unstructured days, and everything is fun and there are no clear expectations. The lack of structure and family time are consistent with this time. Some are nervous to go back to school [and ask things like] “What does it mean if I get COVID?” Most are excited to see their friends and see what they missed. If kids have a great friendship network, it’s exciting. For the kids for whom school is really hard, those problems are going to be there when they return. They may have gotten picked on or felt ignored or invalidated, or sitting still was unbearable. The key is to talk through both the exciting aspects such as seeing friends and returning to normal, but also preparing for the challenges that come alongside it.

Q: How do I help my child get ready?
A: There are three strategies you can employ: 1. Prepare your child. 2. Utilize coping skills. 3. Manage expectations. Preparing your child means talking to them before they start school and as they adjust to going. Set aside time to have a conversation and ask questions and coach them along. Two weeks before school, ask them “Are you excited? Do you feel prepared? Do you have any questions?” Avoid leading them toward anxious responses. Don’t ask, “Are you anxious?”

Q: How can I help my child beyond talking and asking questions?
A: You can help your child by building in structure, walking through what that routine is going to be like and reinforcing their coping skills. This preparation alleviates anxiety.

The week before do a role-play or drive-by. On the drive ask your child, “Remember we are going to go by here tomorrow. Anything you’re excited about? Are you nervous about anything?”

The day after the first day back to school build in special time to process. “How was it? What went on?” Build in that familiar routine of experiencing the school day and reflecting on it. It will take a few times.

There will be moments of anxiety. There will be moments of irritability for kids and parents. It’s a process …. Be realistic and be kind to yourself. Tell yourself, ‘This wasn’t great and that’s OK.’ You can have failures along the way and still be successful.
Dr. Joseph McGuire

Q: How important is routine?
A: Routines are great because then we know what to expect. This is true for parents and for kids. If the world is constantly changing from day to day, that is exhausting. You have to process that info. With routines we know what to do. “When I get to class, I have to sit down. I have to wear my mask.” If I don’t know where I’m going tomorrow, for some kids that’s fine. For a lot of kids, they are a little more anxious. Routine reduces some anxiety and builds in some structure. We can be more efficient in that time and engage in active learning.

Q: How do I know how much preparation my child needs?
A: It depends on the child. Kids who are a little more anxious need more prep work. They need more time to prepare. If your kid is more go with the flow, less time is necessary. Oftentimes I defer to parents. You know your son or daughter better than I do. You know what would be best. What has been successful in the past?

One size doesn’t fit all. Draw on your strengths. You know your children’s personalities very well and the same approach works for one and won’t work for another. Even if your child acts as if going back to school is no big deal, give them a chance to process something they hadn’t yet. Adjusting is a process that will happen over time. It’s not as if your child will have one or two questions and be done. They may have questions that they have at school that they didn’t think about before. Make sure there is an open dialogue.

Q: What if my child doesn’t seem anxious at all at home but I worry they will panic at school?
A: For some kids it may not seem real. They may not have had that kind of panic moment about going back. Just because they aren’t worried doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns. It is always beneficial to prepare. For children like that, it’s good to ask what their plan is and talk through a general walk-through. Bring up opportunities to utilize coping skills. “If it does get tough, what can you do? Where is the school nurse?” Walk them through the process. If they have that panic moment, they know there are supports there. Process with them as they adjust to school life. Don’t ask probing questions; ask general questions “How was school for you? Was it what you expected?”

Q: Children may be going from a quiet, carpeted private bedroom to a bright, loud classroom. What about sensory overload?
A: For kids who have a lot of sensory issues, I would start practicing. One of the best ways to overcome your fears is systematic small exposures. If a kid doesn’t like something on their face, but he has to wear a mask, have him wear a mask for increasing times leading up to the first day of school. You can set up a system: 10 days before school do it one hour per day then 90 minutes per day, and build up and give them rewards for building up to it. That’s also when a drive-by or walk-through can help. Children remember what a school room is like, what a cafeteria is like, but may need to be reminded of the experience to prepare to live it again and avoid (and prepare for) surprises.

One size doesn’t fit all. Draw on your strengths. You know your children’s personalities very well and the same approach works for one and won’t work for another.
Dr. Joseph McGuire

Q: How will I know if my child is not doing OK?
A: A little bit of anxiety is good, but when it becomes overwhelming it’s important to look for signs. People deal with anxiety differently. Some internalize and bring it all inside. They worry and stay up at night and their mind goes a mile a minute. Other children externalize anxiety, which we see more often in young boys relative to young girls. They may be more active, more oppositional. Parents may not understand why their child is acting this way; it can be anxiety.

Things to look for:
1. Academics and feedback from the school. Are their grades tanking or are they performing OK? Communication with the teacher or guidance counselor is key.

2. Avoidance of school. Does your child have stomachaches? Avoidance of specific classes or teacher? Maybe that teacher doesn’t wear a mask or maybe the child is getting picked on in that class.

3. Behavioral changes. Are they having difficulty sleeping? Crying? Not hanging with kids they used to?

You can help your child by establishing and continuing an honest dialogue. A good model to follow is “I observe this. How is this going for you?” Try to give your child — and yourself — a way to express yourselves that is non-judgmental.

Q: What about children who are happy to be at home because they never liked school?
A: Some kids have really flourished studying at home because there hasn’t been that stress of being in the classroom. They can turn off the camera. Children who deal with social anxiety got a break because all those socially anxious situations went away. Preparation, but not over-preparation, is key. Practice the open dialogue. If the worries lead to school avoidance, seek extra support such as a therapist or social skills group for your child.

Q: How can I help my child feel safe?
A: Understand yourself and your kid. If you’re an anxious person by nature, what can you say that will be received in a positive way? We are not going to make this all sunshine and lollipops.

Be age appropriate. Your average first grader doesn’t need to know about COVID rates and where we are in vaccine process. Answer their questions. You know your son or daughter far better than anyone else. You know how much to convey. Yes, the situation is a little scary because it’s a once in a century event. Yet, the skills in being able to relate to your son and daughter haven’t changed.

Q: How long does it take to prepare my child?
A: Parents and children alike need to manage their expectations. We don’t go from zero to 100. It’s going to take up some ramp-up time. There will be moments of anxiety. There will be moments of irritability for kids and parents. It’s a process. Day one may go well. Day two may be an epic failure. Day three may be another failure. Day four may be a little better. Be realistic and be kind to yourself. Tell yourself, “This wasn’t great and that’s OK.” You can have failures along the way and still be successful.

Q: Many parents, especially those who work long hours, have relished the extra time at home with their children. What if I am not ready for my child to go back to school?
A: This is a change for kids and a change for parents. There are many things that have made the pandemic hard. Think about the things that you’ve enjoyed with your child. Is it sitting down for lunch? Walking the dog with them? As they transition to school, set aside time for those special moments to happen.

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