Several years ago, while substituting in a kindergarten classroom, I forgot to add the “lunch” icon to the daily wall schedule. As the students filed in, two children burst into tears, convinced that lunch was canceled.

I often think about this moment in my parenting, for two reasons. First, it reminds me that routines are comforting and empowering. Second, it reminds me that what adults view as “little things” are often not so little to our children. Kids crave predictability and feel more confident when they know what to expect.

Parents and educators are wrestling with enormous questions about the 2020-2021 school year right now: What will it look like if/when children are physically in school? And what will it mean for family life if/when children are at home for hybrid or remote learning?

Despite the looming questions, there's a lot we can do to bolster our children’s feelings of confidence and security as they head into a new year. When we take time to talk about and practice the “little things” — the routines and skills that support academic growth — it will make a big difference, whatever school looks like for your family.

Empower Children With Knowledge and Simple Routines
Fred Rogers once said, “When children know ahead of time what’s going to happen — and not happen — they can prepare themselves for what’s coming. They can think about it and get used to their feelings about it.”
Talk to your child about what school might look like in simple, practical terms. What are the names of their teachers? What will the morning routine at home look like? What will they need to put in their backpack each day? How will they get to school? And how might the school look different than it did the last time they were there?

If they are learning at home, where will their “learning area” be? What types of activities will they do with their teacher over video? What are some of the skills they will learn this year? In broad strokes, what will a typical day look like: school time, lunchtime, playtime? As the Daniel Tiger strategy song goes, “When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.”

Build Habits That Support Physical and Mental Wellness
The importance of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and play — four activities that support children’s physical and mental wellness. A new school year is an adjustment under typical circumstances because change is inherently stressful. So expect some meltdowns those first few weeks — and use mindfulness strategies to help them breathe and play their way through them.

If your children are starting the year in a classroom, talk about ways the school is going to help them be good “germ-busters” — from hand-washing to extra space between students to wearing masks. If masks will be part of your child’s school day, be sure to practice wearing them before the first day to help them get used to how they look and feel!

Share Your Excitement About Their Learning
Children read our emotions for cues about how they should react. If we express our excitement and hopes for their new school year, they will pick up on this. This was my intention yesterday, as my 6-year-old son and I were snuggling and talking about the year ahead. “I am so excited for all the books you are going to read, all the words you are going to write, all the pictures you are going to draw, all the structures you are going to build, all the math you are going to learn, and all the ways you will become stronger and more responsible. I love watching you grow!”

Remember, whether they are studying in school or at home, your child will learn and grow this year — and that is worth celebrating. Circumstances may not be ideal, but they will learn new skills, build new relationships, and perhaps even grow an inch or two taller. They will grow on the outside and on the inside. As Mister Rogers said, “‘Growing on the inside’ are the words I use when I talk with children about such things as learning to wait, learning to keep on trying, being able to talk about their feelings, and to express those feelings in constructive ways. These signs of growth need at least as much notice and applause as the outward kind, and children need to feel proud of them.”

While we are caring for the “little things” that help kids grow, the “big things” on our shoulders as adults may feel overwhelming at times. If you are struggling with your own emotional reactions, make time to pause, reach out for help, and take care of your needs. As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s Surgeon General and a pediatrician, told me, “Our emotional wellbeing is the most important ingredient for our children's emotional wellbeing. Self-care is not selfish.”

This school year is going to bring uncertainties and challenges. If you are worried about your kids and how they will bounce back from this time, here’s some hopeful news: according to research out of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” In other words, your care and compassion will nurture their resilience. Just our presence in their lives is a strengthening force.