Back to the classroom: Communication is key for preparing children to return to school

‘We need to help kids think about why things are different now and what precautions schools are taking,’ says psychologist Melissa Brymer.

For all the excitement about elementary schools reopening in Los Angeles County, children are facing some anxieties as well.

There are the typical first-day jitters — Will I make new friends? What will my teacher be like? — along with new, pandemic-specific concerns – Will my friends recognize me with my mask on? Are we still allowed to play at recess? Is it really safe to go back to school?

The most important thing parents and caregivers can do to prepare children for the transition from Zoom school to in-person learning is to have open conversations about what to expect, says psychologist Melissa Brymer, PhD, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

“What we need to do is help kids think about why things are different now and what precautions schools are taking to try to keep everybody safe,” she says. “And answer their questions, because kids have heard for almost a year that we can’t go back to school because of their safety. The first question they’re going to ask is, ‘Is it safe to go back?’”

Explaining the changes

Parents can help put their children at ease by explaining the steps their school is taking to protect students and teachers from COVID-19. The classroom may look different, for instance, with desks farther apart and perhaps dividers between them. There could be new rules at recess for socially distanced play. The school day may be abbreviated to just a few hours rather than the typical schedule.

Each of the 78 elementary school districts in Los Angeles County can do things a little differently under state and local guidelines.

“It's important to have kids see what things are being done at their school to keep everyone safe,” Dr. Brymer says. “Explain the differences. If there's Plexiglas being used between desks, shortened school days or new rules about the playground, review them and talk about why these things are happening. If it’s a shorter school day than what they were used to in the past, explain that so they know what to anticipate.”

Adapting to new routines

Dr. Melissa Brymer

Most students in Los Angeles County have been learning online since last year, so having to get dressed for school, have breakfast and get out the door requires a significant shift in routine — much like the shift from lazy summer days to the traditional fall return to school, Dr. Brymer says.

She suggests prepping children about what to expect the weekend before school resumes, just as you might at the end of summer, only this time emphasizing “that proper dress — pants, socks and shoes — are part of the routine now.”

Staying safe from COVID-19 adds another wrinkle. For some families, the new routine may include changing clothes after coming home from school as a precaution to protect vulnerable household members.

The back-to-school transition is a shift for parents, too, Brymer notes.

“Whatever your circumstances, you still have to adjust schedules. You still have to get your kids ready. You’ve learned to adjust one way and now it’s changing,” she says. “Any adjustment takes energy. There’s always a bit of stress in there, and parents should remember to take care of themselves during this transition time.”

Meeting needs in the ‘new normal'

Consequences of the pandemic have been varied for different communities and households across the county, which can affect the ability of children to learn at home and what their needs might be as they return to the classroom.

“Schools are really learning that there has been differential impact — some students have been in safe environments, some have not been. Some have had financial strains, and returning to school potentially allows them to have additional food security,” Dr. Brymer says.

She adds that the coming weeks could reveal that some children need additional academic or social-emotional support to adapt to the new normal. Teachers can be a great resource here, she says. Because they’ve been seeing students online, they’re likely to be aware of changes in their work habits or personalities.

Parents may also want to tell their child’s teacher if the family has been struggling in recent months.

“If your family has gone through any kind of adversity because of the pandemic, you may not have shared that with the teacher because you were home to soothe your child,” Dr. Brymer says. “So if you've had a recent death in the family or if there has been financial changes or any kind of change to the family structure — or if your child may be worried about a loved one’s safety at home — consider letting the teacher know so that they can provide that comfort and reassurance that kids may need, especially since it's the younger grades that are returning. That helps, so the child's needs can be met whether at home or at school."

Preparing for flexibility

Because the pandemic’s trajectory remains uncertain, it’s a good idea to let children know that things could still change, Dr. Brymer says. The school day could be extended to a more traditional schedule, or a return to online learning could be necessary.

“Part of the new routine is there may be adjustments,” she says. “I think building in flexibility and letting kids know that there may be changes is good so it's not such a shock when it happens.”

Parents can explain that the school will provide updates about any future changes, which can be discussed as a family.

Celebrating transitions

It’s important to acknowledge the transition back to school and to celebrate it, Dr. Brymer says. She suggests marking the end of the first week back to school with a family game or special meal together.

“Everyone's going to be adjusting to a new transition,” she says. “And sometimes we just go from transition to transition without honoring that this does get stressful for everybody.”

Learn more about the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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