How to Help Your Child Return to Full-Time In-Person Learning

Guide them through this tough transition with some expert tips.

Need help psyching your kid — and yourself — up for a return to full-time in-person learning? We’ve got you covered with some great tips.

Have a conversation

Plan ahead and monitor emotions before talking with your child.

“Children are highly attuned to parents’ stress and anxiety, so before you have a conversation with your children about their return to in-person instruction, make sure you do a temperature check on how you are feeling about the return,” says Dr. Laura Phillips, clinical neuropsychologist, Child Mind Institute.

“Take deep intentional breaths, and think, ‘What does this transition mean? What will change?’” says Dr. Sonya Dinizulu, director of University of Chicago Stress, Trauma, & Resilience (U-STAR) Program at University of Chicago Medicine. Ask your child open-ended questions like, “What are you thinking? or How are you feeling about this?”

Listen and let them know they’re not alone. If a child has difficulty opening up, talk over a card game, or try again later.

Alleviate fears

The pandemic upended our lives. “It’s reasonable to expect some reservations from kids, especially very young kids, who thrive on routine and consistency,” Phillips says.

Rapid growth happens in the elementary years and transitioning back is a big deal for kids. Student concerns, Dinizulu noted, include: being unsure if they’d have friends, not being able to socialize very well, being back in a bigger space, leaving the comfort of home and having different teachers.

“Parents can address concerns by providing clear answers and specific descriptions about all the steps that schools and the broader community are doing to keep them safe,” Phillips says. She suggests driving by the school and talking about what being back in class will be like.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, recommends social stories to help kids express feelings, fears and strategies for when they’re overwhelmed.

Fill out a memory book — think about how this school year will feel different than the last. “Parents can talk to kids about how this adaptability is part of our strength!” Radesky says.

Have fun

Digital orientations and asynchronous learning got you stressed? Try to relax and reconnect. Play water games, go on a bike ride or have a picnic.

“Any activities/games that involve turn-taking, following a group collaborative agenda rather than competition, and helping kids play as a team will get their mindset ready for the social dynamics of school,” Radesky says.

Encourage socialization

Dinizulu recommends gradual exposure to social situations, starting now, to make it easier on kids. “It could start with something as simple as getting together at the park,” she says, “then move them up to engaging with other kids a few times a week, and even an in-person summer camp or class.”

Phillips says: “Find ways to reacquaint kids with their classmates through socially distanced, outdoor playdates, especially now that the weather is nice. And if you know who will be in their classes in the fall—this is a great way to get them excited about a return to school with their friends and also provide them with friendly faces to help them feel more secure.”

Re-introduce structure

Implement routines. “It can be challenging for children to adjust to highly structured days at school when they have been accustomed to less structured time at home,” says Dr. Sharnita Harris, pediatric psychology at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Ask your child to help make a daily calendar and fill it with a mix of fun and educational activities.

Reduce screen time

Think about the virtual classes, Zoom meetings, games and apps your family relied upon during the pandemic — it’s probably a lot.

Have family members give up one form of tech for two weeks, or reduce daily tech time. “I’m trying to take one of those hours to grab my kids off the couch and head outside, or play a board game with them. As a mom, this also helps me connect with my kids,” Radesky says.

Have your kids show you their favorite games or YouTube sites. Discuss what they love, or don’t, about each. Radesky says, “If kids can talk with you about tech, it’s a good starting point to helping your child set some limits and find positive content.”

Practice safety measures

Sing the alphabet song as you practice handwashing, have a scavenger hunt while distancing or do a task with a mask. Kids under 12 can’t get vaccines yet, so schools may still recommend masks this fall.

Identify signs of stress

Our experts listed several key signs to watch for:

  • Changes in sleep patterns (difficulty resting/waking)
  • Changes in eating
  • Aches and pains (stomach/head)
  • Not talking or engaging well
  • Increased worries/difficulty separating
  • Acting out verbally or physically

Acknowledge your child’s feelings and reassure them you’ll help. If symptoms persist more than two weeks, talk to the school or a pediatrician.

Be positive and prepared

Before heading back, give your child a sense of control — let them pick their breakfast and clothes, Radesky suggests, “and put on some music or do some physical activity to get your child in a positive mindset.”

Let your child show how resilient and capable they are, and “expect the unexpected,” Dinizulu’s favorite line from the Backyardigans. It’s a good way to be prepared for anything.

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