Many students and their families have weathered the first few days and weeks back to school after a year of disrupted learning. How is it going and what can we do to best support our children?
Not surprisingly, early reports from preschool and early elementary teachers are a bit rough. Young children have had less structured learning opportunities due to Covid-19 and are entering school without having practiced some of the important “ready for school” behaviors in a group setting (e.g., turn taking, waiting in line). Not to worry, however. Young children are resilient and fast learners. Expect them to be extra tired over the first few weeks of school as they adjust to the new pace and expectations of the day.
Later elementary, middle and high school teachers are also reporting that they have to readjust expectations and move backwards before they can move forwards. Engagement with school has been disrupted and it will take some time for everyone to feel reconnected and then ready for more traditional learning.
Knowing that our children are expending extra emotional energy during their school days right now, here are some reminders for how we can help them at home:
* Never underestimate the importance of predictability in the lives of children of all ages. A reliable daily schedule both at home and school helps protect children from emotional stress.
* As children adjust to school this year, be mindful of not over scheduling them in the afternoons and weekends. All children need more downtime to decompress right now, especially after a year where their lives may have operated at a slower pace.
* Researchers from across medical, psychological and educational domains all highlight the importance of regular sleep schedules (children and teens need at least 9-11 hours of sleep each night).
* Connection with nature– Studies reveal that children are healthier, happier and more creative when they can regularly connect with nature.
* Regular exercise – the physical, emotional, behavioral, social and learning benefits of regular exercise are too numerous to list!
* Provide structure and warmth - Remember that a child’s day at school is very “other directed”. Students transition from one activity to another at the direction of a teacher and sometimes have to put their own needs aside to accommodate a peer or other adult. Strong, supportive relationships with parents and caregivers at home help children cope with the difficult emotions that cumulate over the course of each day.
* In addition, social connections continue to be critical for our children during this time. Children missed out on unstructured social engagement last year and crave connections that are not facilitated or a part of an organized activity. Encourage your elementary and preteen student to hang out with friends after school. Even 15 minutes on the school playground after the last bell rings can help a child release some steam and feel more ready for the rest of their day.
* Reassuringly, many experts are not predicting negative long-term impacts of mask wearing on children’s development. However, it can be helpful for us adults to be more explicit in our communication with children who are masked by adding contextual information to our words, increasing use of gestures and body language, and making sure you are facing the child directly when speaking.
Still worried about your child? Some one-on-one time is often the best medicine. Take a 5-10 minutes, 3 times a week to sit next to your child with the following goals: - Try not to ask questions- remember that children at school have answered questions all day and may need some time/space to not be on the spot. When adults ask questions, we take some power and control away from the child. Give it back to them during this time by letting them decide what to do and share.
- Follow their lead - If they are drawing, take out a piece of paper and draw with them. If they are reading, open up your book and sit next to them. It’s OK if this time is quiet.
- Consider inoculating the child with a compliment or two – anything that feels natural (e.g., “I like watching you draw” or “I like sitting next to you”).
When parents can be a source of kindness, patience and predictability, we help buffer the extra stress that exists while living during a pandemic. This is certainly not always easy! However, take comfort in the research that indicates our “quiet and steady presence” is very powerful for our children.
Renee Pyle, PhD
Renee has worked in clinic, hospital, school and private practice settings for almost 20 years. She is also an Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences where she supervises and teaches child and adolescent psychiatry fellows. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two sons.