The mindset of summer break can be difficult for children to shift out of, but prepping kids to return to school in the middle of a pandemic is a completely different challenge. In addition to buying school supplies and hand sanitizer, and managing our own worries for our kids’ safety, we must also mentally prepare kids for school this fall.
ChildSavers Programs Supervisors, Bob Nickles, LCSW, Stephanie Hammerk, LCSW, and Kristin Lennox, LCSW have a few practical tips and examples for parents and caregivers.
Re-Acclimating Kids to A Schedule
Summertime means a more relaxed schedule and hopefully, a shorter list of things to do. As kids gear up to return to school, and families navigate back to school shopping, one key “to-do” to remember is to get back onto a regular schedule. This is hard after a typical summer, and given the “extended break” families have had due to schools being closed since March, this task is likely to be extra challenging.
Here are a few tips to help make the transition back to school easier:
- Start early. With schools opening back up in mid-to-late August, consider re-adjusting to a regular meal and sleep schedule beginning in mid-July. This will take the pressure off to “get it right” quickly, and allow you and your family’s bodies to slowly get back into the swing of things.
- Take it one step (or an hour or meal) at a time. Rather than switching from 12 am bedtimes and 1 pm wake-ups back to a 9 pm bedtimes and 7 am wake-ups, consider shifting your schedule one hour at a time in the direction you want to go. Combined with giving yourselves plenty of time, this will allow your body (and your family) to adjust to the “new normal” at a pace that feels comfortable and natural.
- Talk about it. Consider having a conversation with your kids about the need to get back on a regular schedule to help prepare them for a successful transition. Try to get their “buy-in” by having them come up with reasons why a regular schedule may be helpful as they return to school. Remind them of these reasons when they give push back to going to bed earlier or having to wake up earlier.
- Be consistent. Once you decided to shift your schedules, stick with it. Even if some days you’re not successful, keep at it, and try again the next day. Predictability, structure, and routine are all parts of what helps kids (and adults) feel prepared and regulated. Knowing what to expect can be a great tool in managing feelings of anxiety and nervousness as kids (and adults) transition back to school.
[Video] Routines, Rituals, Consistency and Structure for Kids
Self-Care Helps Prepare Kids for School
Nothing stirs up our anxieties like a threat to our children. As soon as many of us hear “re-entry,” we start thinking of worst-case scenarios for our kids. So much could go wrong! Our nervous systems likely become tight and hot. Our fears are real. But the fact that you are on high alert is not lost on your child.
Channeling your energy into massive re-entry prep may be the right thing to do… but those preparations may also keep you on high alert. Any time caregivers feel worried or upset or scared, children experience more challenges listening, learning, and growing.
As easy as it may be to focus on the danger right now, the first step towards a smooth transition and ongoing requires focusing on yourself. Here’s how to model self-care with your child (of any age):
- Spend some time alone with your thoughts and try to name your own feelings about whatever re-entry may look like in your community.
- Acknowledge your feelings to another adult. Ask her or him to help you decide on 2-3 options you can use to discharge the energy, inform yourself, or soothe yourself.
- When you’re ready, name your feelings to your child and offer to share ways you help yourself feel better in an age-appropriate way.
Additional self-care resources for parents/guardians with children:
- How to Create a Calm Down Box and What to Put in It [Video]
- The Ultimate Guide to Self Care for Kids (by Age) [5-minute read]
- Breathing Exercise to Help Children Self-Regulate [Video]
- How to Be a Role Model for Kids During Life Transitions [1-hour recorded workshop – Video]
These tips are submitted by Outpatient Program Supervisor, Stephanie Hammerk, LCSW. For nearly 100 years, ChildSavers has provided therapy and mental health services for children in Richmond. Our clinic is open for in-person or virtual therapy sessions for kids age 2 – 17 and their families.
Developing Coping Skills for Fear & Anxiety Around School
It’s normal for kids to have feelings of fear, worry, or anxiety during the back-to-school season. But the added stress of navigating a pandemic could make these fears feel even larger and more difficult to manage.
It’s also normal to instinctually avoid or push down these negative emotions, but sometimes doing so can make our emotions seem even more overwhelming.
Here are some tips to help children cope and manage big emotions as they prepare for school:
- Recognize and name emotions. Sometimes just the power of having your feelings accepted and validated is enough to defuse them.
- Example: “I see that you’re really worried about your first day of school.”
- Embrace silence. Sometimes, kids aren’t ready to have difficult conversations, or simply do not know how to have these conversations yet.
- Example: “We don’t have to talk about it unless you want to – I just wanted you to know that I can see you’re really worried.”
- Focus on what you can control. We can’t control what, where, when, or how most things around us happen. We can control how we prepare for them or react to them. We bring comfort by saying, “We can’t stop the first day of school happening, but we can help ourselves be more ready for it.”
- Protip: You can also make a list of Back-to-School essentials but think beyond supplies. Does your child need more time for cuddles and play before being out of your care and safety again? Does your child need to get back into routine? Work on a list or even a bag of materials that help your child cope during times of stress – coloring books, play-doh or putty, a soft toy, some encouraging notes from a loved one, a picture from a fun time together.
- Understand emotion-focused vs. problem-focused coping, and when to use each. What do you and your child need in this moment? In most cases, it will be important to calm bodies down before the mind can work at its best. Emotion-focused coping, or calming down bodies first: physical movement/exercise, taking a bath, giving/receiving hugs and nurturance, taking deep breaths.
- Example: “Let’s put on our favorite movie and cuddle together to take our mind off of our worries.” or “I know we’ve enjoyed staying up late, but let’s try to go back to our school sleeping schedule.”
- Protip: Problem-focused coping, or rational problem-solving: creating a to-do list or schedule, setting consistent boundaries, reaching out to school staff or others for help.
These helpful tips are submitted by ChildSavers Immediate Response Program Supervisor, Kristin Lennox, LCSW. Our Immediate Response therapists are available 24/7, 365 days per year for children experiencing trauma. Learn more about this Richmond-based resource for families.
ChildSavers is a nearly 100-year-old non-profit in Richmond, VA that focuses on preventing trauma and intervening when trauma occurs in a child’s life. We do this by training and equipping early child care providers to deliver quality care and providing trauma-informed therapy for children in our community. We also provide Trauma and Resilience Training for adults looking to become more trauma-sensitive and help their community thrive. Connect with us today and learn more about our services.