Therapist shares parent tips for helping kids go back to school during the pandemic

It was the conversation I was dreading and had been rehearsing for days. “Mom, I can’t wait to play Pokemon with my friend at recess.” What he didn’t yet know was that his friend was assigned to a different hybrid learning schedule from him. When I had to break the news to him, he was understandably crushed, and I was too. Lots of tears ensued and more questions were asked. I know we are not alone in these tough conversations as we face an unprecedented school year ahead. When parenting feels overwhelming, sometimes it’s helpful to go back to the basics. Here are some tips:

school hallway - back to school pandemic tips

Name those big feelings

Dr. Dan Siegel termed the phrase “Name it to tame it” in one of his bestselling books, “The Whole Brain Child”. This is a term that has stuck with me throughout all of the parenting challenges myself and my clients have faced. When our children are having meltdowns and big emotions, the best thing we can do is to name their feelings and validate that they are real for them. We don’t have to be the problem-fixers (as much as we wish we could be), which takes a big load off our shoulders. By simply stating, “I hear you, I know this is hard/scary/frustrating, ” while offering comfort and staying present with our children, we will help them to calm and they will be more receptive to moving forward. Some children have difficulty naming their feelings and may instead act out their feelings through arguments, aggression, tantrums, defiance, and other challenging behaviors. In those instances if we can name what we think they may be feeling, it helps them to learn the skill to later name it on their own. Phrases such as “I’m wondering if this is really about being scared to go back to school rather than you not finding your favorite pair of socks?”. Sometimes they will correct us, and sometimes the light bulb will go off and they will reach their “aha moment”. Staying with them, being present, and naming the emotions will go far in taming the challenging moments.

Create a predictable routine

Does the end of the Summer break have you feeling like you’re going a little nutty? Children often feel that way too. We thrive on a healthy dose of routines, predictability, and schedules; when we know what to expect and there are few surprises, our minds and bodies feel more relaxed. Whether your child is doing distance learning, in-school learning, or a combination, helping to create a routine will feel better for everyone. Plan for a consistent bed time, wake up time, and meal/snack times. Determine what works best for the morning hours and afternoon hours, and have a designated area as free from distractions as possible. Children often thrive on a calendar and visual schedule that they can see, along with timers; make it a fun family project by having them help create and decorate their daily schedule (and bonus, it help you get their buy-in!). Scheduling in routine breaks throughout the day will be important for both you and your child to handle the stress that comes your way.

Monitor electronic time

Do you notice your child reaching for their phone throughout their work time? We all get distracted easily from time to time and children have even more difficulty in managing those impulses. Establishing expectations and consequences from the beginning around screen time and cell phone use will eventually help to decrease limit-testing and decreased motivation as a result of distractions.

Reward positive behavior

Speaking of electronic time, use it to your advantage! If your child is motivated by screen time, you can use it as a reward for completing a task and other positive behaviors. By making clear guidelines such as “if you can show me you’re working hard for the next 20 minutes, you can have 10 minutes of screen time when the timer goes off”. Other children may be more motivated by games, stickers, or free play, and that is great too.

Ask for help

We were not meant to go on this road alone. Parenting a child is hard, even more so when our worlds’ have been turned upside down with this pandemic. Be kind to yourself, and allow yourself the grace to make mistakes. Gather your tribe of supports, whether that be family, neighbors, friends, or school staff. If you have concerns that your child is struggling with the adjustment of a new school year, do not be afraid to ask for help. The earlier we can help support a family or child that is struggling, the easier it often is to get them feeling better.

-Mindy Johnson, LICSW,  Canvas Health School-based Mental Health Therapist 

If you are looking for additional help for your child, family, or for yourself, please contact Canvas Health to make an appointment at (651) 777-5222.