To say the 2020 – 2021 school year was a rollercoaster for children is an understatement. Remote learning, socially distanced classes, closures in response to COVID cases, constant uncertainty…it was a lot for kids to handle.
And while we’re in a different place heading into the 2021 – 2022 school year, there’s still a lot of uncertainty—which means many children are feeling nervous or apprehensive about the year ahead.
So, the question is, after such a tough year with so many ups and downs, how can you help your children manage their feelings—and mentally prepare to go back to school?
Talk to your kids about their feelings…
If your kids are feeling nervous or anxious about heading back to school, one of the best things you can do? Talk to them about it.
If you notice your child seems apprehensive about the upcoming school year, try “sitting down with your child to talk openly about their anxiety,” says Dr. Donna Novak, Psy.D., a Simi Valley, CA-based psychologist that specializes in anxiety. “Ask them if they are feeling nervous about [going back to school] and to share exactly what makes them nervous.”
As your children identify their challenging feelings (like anxiety or apprehension), “provide validation and active listening while coming up with a plan for how they will get through their feelings,” says Novak. “For example, is there a friend they can talk to? Can they have something to remind themselves at the moment [they’re feeling nervous], such as ‘I know my mom and I will have special time after school to hang out and talk?’”
Now, as you’re talking to your children about their feelings, it’s important to keep yours in check; the last thing you want is to transfer your fears and anxieties around the upcoming school year to them—and have them walk into their first day of school carrying your stress with them. So, while you don’t want to be dishonest with your kids or pretend like everything is fine when it isn’t, be aware of not transferring your own school-related anxieties to your kids (and if you need to vent or talk through your own anxieties, save the conversation for an adult partner or loved one).
Bottom line? Helping your children talk through their feelings—and come up with a plan for dealing with them—can help them feel more confident heading into the school year.
…and give them tools to manage them
Part of helping your children come up with a plan to manage anxiety, apprehension, and other challenging feelings related to the upcoming school year is giving them tools to help manage those feelings.
For example, “parents can help their children cope with…anxiety by practicing mindfulness and positive self-talk with them,” says Novak.
Let’s say that, after a year of mostly remote learning, your child is struggling with social anxiety. In that situation, you could help them identify their challenging thoughts (“No one likes me. I’m not good enough.”) and replace it with something more positive. (“Everyone feels nervous sometimes. I’m doing the best I can—and that is enough.”)
There are a variety of tools you can share with your children to help them better cope with anxiety and other challenging feelings, like breathing exercises, meditation, exercise and stretching, or talking things out with a teacher. Work with your child to figure out what works best for them; knowing that they have a plan and tools in place to deal with challenging emotions when they arise can make them feel less apprehensive about going back to school.
Plan social activities
If your children haven’t done much socializing over the past year-plus, the thought of going back to school—and being around a new group of classmates—can feel overwhelming.
So, if you want them to feel better prepared for the new school year—and all the social interaction that goes along with it—start easing them into it ahead of time by coordinating play dates and social activities with friends and classmates in the weeks leading up to the first day of school.
“Having go-to friends and familiar faces during back-to-school alleviates anxiety and first-day jitters,” says parenting and education design expert Dr. Karen Aronian, Ed.D.
Get them back into a routine
For a lot of children, the 2020 – 2021 school year lacked the structure they were used to. But hopefully, 2021 – 2022 will be a return to a more “normal” school schedule. So, if you want to mentally prepare your kids for the upcoming school year, you need to reintroduce that structure—and get them back on a schedule now.
“Parents can help their kids transition back into a more structured schedule by practicing prior to school starting,” says Novak. “This [may look like] like waking up early for school time, preparing a breakfast together, and planning activities for the day.”
And while you might be tempted to provide that structure for your child, if you want them to successfully adapt to their new schedule in time for the school year, you should involve them in the process.
“Set up a doable, mutually determined schedule with your kids,” says Aronian. “No matter their age, child input equals child buy-in.”
Once you and your child (or children) have figured out a routine, make sure you post that routine throughout your home; that way, they have visual reminders of what they need to do and when—which can make it easier to get back in the swing of things, when the time comes, transition into their routine for the school year.
“Post the plan on the refrigerator, inside their bedroom door, at their desk, [or] inside the front door,” says Aronian.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.