Preparing Kids For an Unconventional School Year

By: Parker Huston, PhD
As seen on Nationwide Children's Hospital's 700 Childrens® Blog

For many families, the coming school year will be different than any other. No matter what type of learning environment children experience, there will be adjustment to new expectations, routines, and procedures. It is normal for children to have difficulty adjusting in the first few weeks of school each year, but this year, fears of getting sick, school safety protocols for COVID-19 or heightened tensions around racism may make the transition even more difficult. Here are some important tips to help prepare for an unconventional school year.

Adult and child doing school work wearing face masks
  1. Start preparations earlier than usual this year. It’s always a good idea to think ahead and prepare kids for returning to school at the end of summer, but it’s even more important this year due to all of the changes they will experience. Be open and honest with your children, at a level appropriate for their age, about what is known and what is unknown about the upcoming school year.
  2. Ask them questions and talk through their responses. Instead of asking, “What are you worried about for school this year?” try asking, “What do you think school will be like this year?” If they express concerns about a specific aspect of the school year, talk through this with them and don’t discount their worries. Make it clear that you are there to support them and help them through any challenges.
  3. Discuss likely changes at school (or confirmed changes) and problem-solve with your kids about how that will impact them and what they can do to make it easier. For younger children, this might be talking through lunchtime routines or bathroom breaks. For older students, this might include how to keep track of books and online assignments to make sure they are prepared for each day.
  4. Model appropriate coping skills for children. Kids tend to look to trusted adults to know how to react in uncertain situations. If parents show that they are not coping well with school changes this year, children are more likely to be upset as well.
  5. Practice new procedures at home and get kids comfortable before the school year starts. Have them wear masks for short times at home and gradually increase the amount of time they wear them. Have kids practice logging on to the computer they will use for online learning this year and navigate to the site they need or something similar. Schedule video calls with family and friends to get them used to having conversations on the screen if they aren’t already.
  6. Get kids on a new routine in the weeks leading up to school that mirrors what you know of their school schedule. Establish consistent sleep and wake times, have structured and unstructured parts of the day, and have them wear masks to do activities at home, such as art projects, reading, or parts of playtime. Normalize the changes for them by reminding them that all of their classmates will be experiencing the same changes.
  7. If you have specific concerns for your child, reach out to the teacher and front office as the start of school year approaches and discuss your concerns. Ask about any special resources that might be available this year to help.

Since families have been spending more time together due to COVID-19 restrictions, young children may have increased separation anxiety or general stress and concerns about being away from family and being in new environments with new people. For younger children who have a hard time saying goodbye, consider making a special goodbye part of your routine that you can do together, such as a special handshake or a statement that you and your child can make to one another. Also remind your child when you might see each other again. Some small children also like a transitional object, like a small item that reminds them of a caregiver while they are separated and that they can “keep safe” while apart. Practice short separations at home while a parent goes for a walk or runs errands. If safe to do so, have kids go for a sleepover at a grandparent’s house or spend some time away from home in a comfortable environment.

When to Seek Other Help

It is natural for the beginning of the school year to be stressful for kids of all ages (and parents!). It typically takes a few weeks of adjustment before kids are used to their new routines and schedules. If you notice significant changes in your child’s behavior, such as sleep problems, major appetite changes, behavior or mood changes, or anxiety that makes it difficult for them to function, seek advice from your child’s pediatrician, school counselor or teacher.

Featured Expert

Parker Huston, PhD

Parker Huston, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist working in the Comprehensive Pediatric Feeding Program at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He primarily provides services through the evaluation clinics, outpatient treatment and intensive feeding track.

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