As our kids prepare to go back to school, our impulse will probably be to make up for the lost time, whether it’s the academics, intramural sports, student clubs, or any of the other milestones our children missed out on during the pandemic.
However, before we start signing our children up for everything, it’s important to remember that the last 18 months have been really hard on them, and that moderation is called for—especially during the first few months of school. Many of our children are going to be adjusting to simply being in the classroom full-time again, while still living with the uncertainty of what the threat of variants might mean for the school year.
“This year’s back-to-school is as much about building flexibility for your family and your child,” said Bob Cunningham, the executive director of learning development at Understood, a non-profit organization that provides resources and guidance for the families of children who think and learn differently. “Make sure not to over-program the first few months.”
Make the transition as gradual as possible
Returning to school full-time is likely going to be an abrupt change for your child, and compounding matters is the fact that teachers are going to be under a lot of pressure to make up for a lost year. So much change at once is guaranteed to be stressful for both children and parents.
That’s why it’s important to ease your kids into school as gradually as you can, in order to lessen the shock of returning. In order to get your child used to a regular schedule again (or for the first time), it’s best to begin adjusting their eating and sleeping habits a few weeks to a month out from the start of school, so they’ll have fully transitioned before class begins. To soften the transition, it’s also a good idea to continue some of the patterns and activities of the summer into the school year, whether that means a little more unstructured play time after school or a more relaxed schedule on the weekends.
Don’t put too much stress on your children
As parents, it’s important we not to put additional stress on our kids, whether it’s in the form of academic expectations or suggestions for extracurriculars, as they will be dealing with enough as it is.
“I’m much more concerned about the level of stress and anxiety on the adults than I am on the children,” Cunningham said. “Kids are resilient, but kids respond, in a very sensitive way, to the stress of the adults around them. If you are confused, if you are anxious, if you are panicking and pulling lever after lever, making change after change, your child will respond negatively.”
There will probably be some struggles with homework in the beginning, which is normal, given the circumstances. The good news is that your children will get get used to their previous schedule and workload, although it may take a little while.
And if you notice that your child isn’t enjoying a specific extracurricular activity, even if they once did, it’s okay to let them decide for themselves whether or not they want to continue.
“Parents should verbally reinforce their children when they provide valid reasons for moving away from certain activities,” said Jamie Bennett, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks. “It is worth giving them agency over which activities to maintain and which to move away from.”
Structure is good for kids
Generally speaking, kids do well with structure. During more normal times, structure is one of the benefits of after school activities, which give our kids the chance to socialize with their peers outside of school while also allowing them to develop additional skills and interests.
In the right amount, these activities can help your child build self-esteem, as well as a sense of who they are and what they enjoy. But given all of the disruptions of the last year, getting your child used to the structure of in-person school will be its own priority. Instead of being at home all day, they’ll be in a classroom with other students, with a different schedule, set of expectations, and social pressures. It’s possible that piling after school activities on top of that will do more harm than good.
Hold off on resuming a full schedule right away
The first few months will likely be more stressful than usual, so rather than having your child jump right back into all of their usual extracurriculars, it’s a good idea to hold off on resuming their previous schedule, at least for the first few months.
In the beginning, you’ll want to make sure there is a certain amount of flexibility built into your child’s schedule, so that if they need a little extra time to do their homework or they are struggling with a specific aspect of returning to school, they will have the time they need to get used to it.
If your child has a learning disorder, such as dyslexia or ADHD, you’ll want also want to talk to the teacher about their specific accommodations for in-person learning. Try and keep an eye on their workload, as teachers are going to be under enormous pressure to get kids caught up, which can quickly become overwhelming.
“If your normal impulse is to get your child enrolled in as many activities as possible to hit the ground running, this might be the year to back off of that,” Cunningham said.
Signs your child is overextended
Frustration is a normal emotion, especially as your child readjusts to school. However, if you notice that your child is withdrawn, shows a lack of interest in their normal activities, or is starting to show some harsh self-criticism, these are all red flags that indicate your child is struggling and needs some extra support.
“Parents should maintain open lines of communication with their children,” Bennett said. “Otherwise, children may feel inclined to suppress their honest feelings, which could manifest as harmful forms of coping.”