The return to school is typically an exciting time for kids, parents and teachers alike. But 2020 is not a typical year, and the return to school, or distance learning, amid the coronavirus pandemic has many families and educators on edge.

Parents are wondering how to help their children cope with the anxiety of the unknown surrounding school this year, while keeping everyone safe.  

Here are some tips for how to help children emotionally.

Be a good role model

We all know kids learn by example. They learn more by watching us than by what we tell them. The pandemic has created an incredibly stressful time for adults, particularly for parents, and now as teachers think about going back to the classroom, anxiety is high.

Children do watch what goes on around them. The younger the child, the more of a sponge they are. They’re taking in what they see – both your mood and emotions as well as your behavior. So, if you’re working really hard to manage and regulate your own emotions and also taking care of yourself, the kids will naturally pick up on that and try to do that more as well.

As we went through the initial phase of this pandemic, there was a lot of adrenalin flowing with quick movement and action, and a lot of people can rally in that type of crisis. But now we’re in a long, uncertain length of time, a sort of plateau, of stress and uncertainty. One of the most important things we can do as adults is take care of ourselves.

Talk to your kids about the pandemic

Talking about what is happening with your children is key, at an age appropriate level. There’s a natural tendency as parents to try to protect children, and we may think talking about difficult topics could cause a child to worry, or that it might spark anxiety and make a difficult situation even harder.

But actually, the opposite is true. The more you talk about it, the more you normalize it for children. Let them know we’re all in this together. We’re all going to have good days and bad days.  But by working together as a team, talking about it, coming up with ideas, and discussing changes with your family, you’re modeling excellent coping strategies that will be with your children for the long haul. This generation, years from now, hopefully will look back at this time and think about what they’ve learned instead of what happened to them.

Talking with your children provides a sense of comfort and sense of control at a time when there isn’t a lot of control for them. They’re not making decisions about school or whether to see their friends. Again, the younger the child, the less sense of control they have. But the more you can engage them in conversations about the pandemic and how to keep everybody in the family safe, the greater sense of connection they’ll have, and it will help them feel as if they have more control over this very challenging time.    

Take precautions as a family

We all know we should be taking precautions. We also know that if we keep reminding children, especially teens, they tend to tune out.

But there are some things that can help:

  • Clear and firm household expectations, so everyone is expected to conduct themselves in one way. The more you can involve children and all household members in the conversation, the more engaged they’ll feel. Make decisions as a group and listen carefully to children’s input about what is going well and what people can do better. Have frequent check-ins – are you washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, wearing a mask?
  • Recognize peer pressure may be a factor for children about wearing masks. Remind them it’s a time to demonstrate leadership. They should let their peers know they are taking precautions for good reasons, and hopefully it will have a positive impact on their peers. For older students, peer pressure is a lot greater. So, it’s important to stress that children are returning home after school, and it’s each family member’s responsibility to keep everyone safe, and YOU are in control of that – A simple task such as keeping your mask on can do that. Remind them that they will be safe and they are safe when they come home to see mom and dad.
  • We have to be an example every day for our children. Wear a mask, wash our hands, and social distance; these actions must be part of our normal day, every day. Continue to practice safe behaviors.
  • For kids going back to school, there are rule changes. When you talk with children about the consequences, it should be age appropriate. For instance, when talking about why wearing a mask is important, younger children may understand better if you explain to them that not wearing a mask might hurt somebody if you have a germ and breathe on them. For older children stress the importance of keeping a mask on to prevent older members of the family from getting sick because they are more susceptible to illness than they are, so we need to work as a team to protect them. Remind them that they will be safe and they are safe when they come home to see mom and dad.
  • Focus on one day at a time. Discuss small things such as getting ready for school, preparing lunch, packing a back pack with extra masks, hand sanitizer, etc. Talk about something positive happening that day at school and other things to look forward to when school is over.  
  • Immediate rewards are very effective. If you wear your mask at school today and get a good report from your teacher, we can make special plans or do an activity with a family member. Years from now when your child thinks back on this time, how you make them feel will be what they remember most.  

Go to school or stay at home?

Some children will naturally be nervous about going back to school. It’s important to reassure kids that there are a lot of people who are all working on solving this – the governor, parents, teachers and the school system – all the adults around you are putting something together to make sure you’re safe.

Whether or not to send your child to school is something that needs to be decided by each family. There is no such thing as a risk-free environment, so parents must assess the situation and compare the trade-offs of staying home versus going out into the world.

Those who have been isolating and quarantining for months and have not gone out into the environment will have the most anxiety about reopening schools. The fact is, though, that you can interact with each other, wear a mask, and conduct yourself in day-to-day life in normal fashion. The more you go out in the world, you will begin to recognize that every movement or action you take is not going to be harmful. You will become desensitized to the experience.

There may also be a negative effect from staying home too long, and staying apart from others. Kids are reporting hopelessness and helplessness earlier than expected in the year and for totally different reasons than we have experienced in other years.

It’s important that we all recognize this is going to be a very challenging fall. All kids learn differently, and this has been especially trying for kids who need to be face-to-face to engage socially. There are children who may be on the spectrum, have a developmental disability or for other reasons have a difficult time engaging and interfacing with computers, so they need more in-person attention.

We all understand this is taking a toll on children and their behavioral and mental health. We are here to help. Call the Kids' Link RI 24-hour triage line at 1-855-KID-LINK (1-855-543-5465) or learn more about the resources available to children and families on our website.

Barbara Austin, LICSW & Jennifer Jencks, PhD

Barbara Austin is a licensed independent clinical social worker and clinical supervisor of the Access Center at Bradley Hospital. Jennifer Jencks is a psychologist, director of the Access Center and assistant director of Lifespan Pediatric Behavioral Health Emergency Services.