How To Talk To Your Kids About Going Back To School

Published on: 31 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
talking to your kids about back to school

This upcoming school year will be like no other. While many parents hoped that school would be back to normal this fall after schools were initially shuttered in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, that reality has not come to fruition. Or at least not entirely.

While some schools are now open full-time for in-person learning, most schools are either operating on a hybrid schedule — with smaller cohorts of children attending school on alternating days — or going fully remote, with students live streaming classes from their homes.

Even in schools that are back in full-time operation, most look very different from how they did pre-pandemic. Desks are spaced six feet apart, students and teachers are wearing masks most or all of the day, and interactions between students and teachers are strictly limited. School is a place of learning, but also a place of face-to-face interaction, play, and hands-on work — all of which will be largely absent from school this fall.

These dramatic changes are understandably stressing parents out — especially those who are trying to balance their kids’ schooling with their own work schedule. Going back to school, however, will be very challenging for our kids, too, who may have a harder time emotionally processing these changes than we do.

I have two school-age children, both of whom are going to be distance learning this fall, and I have already encountered quite a few stressors as I’ve worked to transition them back to school. I am trying to remember that this is a really tough time for everyone, and that above all, I need to be gentle with my kids and allow them as much grace as I can.

4 Tips for Transitioning Your Child Back to School

There is plenty of information about back-to-school we need to share with our children — from new schedules, new safety procedures, to new modes of learning — but what our children need most is someone to help them process their feelings and make them feel safe as they navigate the “new normal.” As their parent, you are the perfect person to help them through this. Here’s how:

1. Give your child space to share their “big feelings”

When I told one of my children that he would be distance learning again this fall, his immediate reaction was to tell me that if that was the case, he would not be participating in school at all. He then went to his room to hide under the covers and sulk.

I felt uneasy about his reaction, of course. No parent wants their child to hate school or refuse to participate in it. But I also knew that hearing this news was genuinely crushing for him, and that I needed to give him space to air out his feelings. I told him that his feelings were understandable and that he had every right to be disappointed and mad, but that this was what the reality of the situation, and he would adjust in time.

Sure enough, after about two days of sulking (and me doing my best not to nag him about it!), he softened to the idea. He still doesn’t love the idea of distance learning, but he has accepted it — and had to get out some of his complicated feelings about it in order to move toward a place of acceptance.

2. Let the questions flow

My other child has many (and I mean many) questions about how virtual learning is going to work. Will my old friends be in my class? Can we do “show and tell” on the computer? Do I really have to do homework? What if I have to pee during class?

Children attending school in-person this fall will likely have just as many questions, because, even if they have been attending school for years, school is going to look totally different this year. They may have questions and concerns about wearing a mask for six hours a day. They may want to know if they will be allowed to play with their friends. And they may have serious (and sometimes unsettling questions) about what happens if someone they know gets sick with COVID-19, and whether they might contract the virus themselves.

It’s important to let your children ask as many questions as possible, and not to try to silence them if the questions are flowing. This is your time to listen and give your child space to share even their worst fears. It can be helpful to find an unhurried time of day — i.e., not during the hustle and bustle of morning before work — when you can give your child your undivided attention and let them voice their concerns about the upcoming school year.

3. Be honest about what you know and don’t know

As a parent, you probably want to relay as much helpful information to your child as possible, but even you may not have all the answers they seek about back-to-school. After all, many of us are still hearing that our kids’ schools are revising their plans and can’t answer all of our own most pressing questions.

You can be honest with your child when you can’t answer one of their questions. For example:

  • With older children, you can explain that this is a time of uncertainty in our country, and that all of us — even the adults — are still learning and figuring out the best ways to continue with our lives while keeping everyone else safe.
  • You can keep it simpler for younger kids, and merely say that you don’t know everything about what is happening and explain that adults don’t always have all the answers, and that’s okay too.

Teaching our children what it means to accept uncertainty — and showing them that you can persevere despite this uncertainty — is a great lesson for our kids about resilience and strength building.

4. Give your child time to make the transition

Even under normal circumstances, my children need at least a few weeks to transition back to school after a long summer vacation. This transition often involves some extra crankiness, irritability, and general moodiness. As the freedom of summer recedes children are thrust back into a more regimented lifestyle, they need to readjust to academic expectations, as well as some time to transition their sleep schedules.

I think we can all expect this transition to be more intense this year and predict that our children will need even more time to make the necessary adjustments. We also have to remember that schools and teachers will be making a huge adjustment as well, educating our kids in mediums they might have never used before. If we have proper expectations about things being rocky and extra challenging this falle, we will be better able to guide our children through the changes, with both patience and with love.

You Don’t Have to Go Through It Alone

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about this tumultuous time is that none of us should be expected to get through this alone. When it comes to parenting our kids, we have to remember to put on our own oxygen masks first, and it — and that means reaching out for help ourselves when we need it. Connecting to an online therapist is a wonderful way to share your own fears and stresses about back-to-school, working from home, and balancing all of it. Your therapist can also help you develop strategies to nurture your child through this transition.

As busy as your child’s teacher is right now, don’t be afraid to reach out to them for help, especially if your child is having trouble adjusting to the changes they may be facing this school year. If your school has a counselor or a therapist on staff, you can reach out to them, too. You can also connect to a child psychologist outside of school. Child therapists are well versed in helping children cope with difficult transitions, and can help your child unpack their fears and worries.

During times like this, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. But the truth is, all parents are finding back-to-school highly stressful this year. You are not alone in your feelings, and you are not expected to manage these challenges without support — if you need it, please reach out.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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