The re-opening of some childcare centers and schools has parents both ecstatic and anxious. Most parents I speak to are desperate for their children to be back with their friends, playing and learning. Not to mention the need for some relief from the impossible task of trying to work from home while caring for young kids. It’s hard — and everyone needs a break.
At the same time, we parents are anxious about family health — and are worried how children will respond to a return to their school or childcare programs. Over four months at home is an eternity for young children. It has become their new normal.
If your child is excited to go back to his program, worries about separation may not be an issue. But this significant shift may be challenging for children who are slower-to-warm-up by nature and have a harder time with transitions.
Kids will need your empathy and support as they transition back to school. Here are 10 ways you can help:
Reconnect with peers from school before your child returns to his program. If your child responds positively to interacting with peers on video chat, set up some virtual playdates or plan some socially-distanced encounters. You might meet at a park and have a picnic or do a bike ride. Feeling reconnected to peers who will be at school with your child can make the transition easier.
Connect with the teacher/provider. Request some time for your child to do a virtual or in-person meet-and-greet with his teachers/caregivers.
Visit the program in advance. This is especially important if your child is starting in a new classroom or new school. Play on the playground. Explore inside the school if this is allowed. The unknown causes anxiety. The more your child is re-familiarized with his old program or becomes familiar with the new setting, the less fearful he is likely to be.
Create a back-to-school plan with your child. Let your child know a return to school or childcare is coming up. Talk through any new health and safety rules he can expect — like social distancing and wearing masks (Just like we do at the grocery store!). And make a list of your morning routine together. ("When we do, something new, let's talk about what we'll do.")
When you do this depends on the age of your child. The younger your child, the less notice you should give. One or two days’ notice is sufficient for preschoolers, since they don’t have a very strong grasp on time. Knowing there will be a big change on the horizon can cause anxiety as they don’t have the ability to imagine exactly what that change will be like. For 5 to 8-year-olds, a week is plenty of time.
Create a visual calendar to show your child exactly when he will be returning to his program to make it concrete. If you have photos of your child participating in the program, tape one onto the date when he will be returning. You can also make a book out of these photos that you can look at together leading up to his return to remind him of his positive experiences there.
Validate feelings before jumping to reassurance. If your child expresses concern about or resistance to returning to his program, it is important to acknowledge, accept, and empathize with his feelings before jumping in to reassure him. Labeling difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over, and work through them in positive ways. (“I know it is a big change to be going back to school. I totally understand why you are not sure you want to go back. You must feel a little scared — and sad to be leaving home, huh?”)
Ignoring these feelings doesn’t make them go away. If children don’t have a healthy way to express their emotions, they are more likely to act out. Once you name a big emotion and talk about it, you can move to problem-solving. (“It may feel scary at first, because it is a big change, but you will see that it is the same fun, amazing place that it always was.”) This would be a good time to look at photos of your child’s past experiences in his program — or pull out old artwork or school projects. (“Remember when you made this?! I can’t wait to see what you build this year.”)
Let your child know you believe in him! Remind your child that he has faced big changes before and that you are sure he can do this, too. Talk about the strength and bravery that helped him adapt to new experiences in the past, like a new childcare center or school — or trying a new activity or food. This is how children build resilience. The more experience they have working through challenges, the more confidence and skills they develop to take on future difficult situations.
Establish a ritual for leaving home. Rituals can help kids cope. You might have your child choose a book that you read part of during breakfast. Have your child make a special bookmark he places in the book to indicate where you left off. Then, when you pick him up at the end of the day or first thing when you get home, finish the book together. This provides a connection from morning to evening that helps children cope with separations.
Create a special goodbye ritual. Come up with a special kiss, hug or mantra you say every time you separate at school. One dad and his child hold each other in a tight hug for a count of five and then say, “See you later alligator” in unison. Doing that every morning eased the separation tremendously. (“Ugga Mugga!”)
Tune in to your own feelings about separating from your child, so you can also manage those emotions. It is natural to feel anxious about separating from your child, especially during this strange and stressful time. Keep in mind that your worry can increase your child's worry (and thus yours, too — it’s a cycle!), making the separation even harder. Children look to their parents for cues for how to make sense of their experiences in the world. If you appear worried, not just with your words but in the tone of your voice or facial expression, your child picks up on this and assumes there is something to be worried about. (This is especially true for kids who are highly sensitive and super tuned in to your emotions and reactions.) When saying goodbye, there is a big difference between, “Oh Sweetie, I promise mommy will come back as soon as possible” (said in a worried tone of voice) and “I can’t wait to hear all about your day when I pick you up after naptime!”
Most importantly, have faith that, with support from you and his teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Remind yourself that it is a gift to provide your child the opportunity to learn that he can make it through a challenge and successfully adapt when change is necessary. It will help your child feel less afraid and more confident about tackling other challenges he will face in the future.