Tips to Support the Transition Back to School
from Children’s Mental Health Ontario
Back to school in a pandemic – again.
The start of the school year is usually challenging for many kids. But, going back to school in a pandemic adds a lot of stress and worry to what kids may already be feeling.
We are hearing from many child and youth mental health workers that families are feeling a lot of uncertainty around the return to school. A lot of kids are asking questions such as: Will schools stay open this year? Why should I go in-person if they are just going to shut down anyways?
All families faced a lot of upheaval last year, so it makes sense that many are feeling this way now.
With this in mind, Children’s Mental Health Ontario checked in with our child and youth mental health experts for tips and ideas to help make your child’s transition back to school a little easier.
Tips to Support the Transition Back to School
1. Get into a routine
We talk a lot about routines because it’s so important! Getting into a routine is also a common challenge as kids head back to school. This year, it may be even more difficult because kids have not had in-person learning for so many months. We’ve heard from families that older kids may have picked up some unusual sleep routines – staying up all night on their devices and sleeping in late. Working with them to agree on new rules to shut down their devices and get back to a regular sleep schedule could help get them on the right track.
2. Communicate with kids
One of the most powerful ways you can support your child through the process of returning to school is by trying to understand how they are feeling about it. Find the right time to ask them questions to get a sense of what’s on their mind. Listening to what they are experiencing – and not criticizing – gives them an open space to talk about what’s going on or ask questions they have about the school year. For many kids, the more chances they have to be heard, the more likely they will feel comfortable to open up and talk. You could let them know whatever they are feeling is ok and assure them that you’re going to get through this together. Also, ask your child how you can work together to make this a positive school year. Ask older kids to consider what the benefits are of returning to school to get them focusing on the positives. Read more tips for communicating with your child or youth.
It can be helpful to have a script in mind to get the conversation going. Here’s an example that might help with school: “I understand you might feel nervous/sad/uncomfortable about going back to school because… it’s been so long and you’ve gotten comfortable with online school/ you’ll miss doing school work from home with mom/dad’s company/ COVID is still a risk and that’s scary…” Then follow through with emotional support or some problem solving: “We’ll get through this together” or “How can I help you?”
3. Sit in the yuck
There are a lot of concerns around academic preparedness and uncertainty of the school year – on top of ongoing concerns about the pandemic. None of us can say with certainty what the next few months will bring and sometimes the unknown can feel yucky. It’s ok to have conversations with your kids and ‘sit in the yuck’ with them – that means, you are hearing their concerns and validating their feelings without necessarily being able to solve the problem. We don’t need to have all the answers, all the time. For a lot of kids, resilience comes from having just one person in their corner who sees them and understands what they are going through. From there, you can start problem solving together by focusing on what is in your control to change.
4. Pack your bags the night before
There are quite a few things you can do the night before to help the morning rush run a little more smoothly. Can you have backpacks packed, waiting by the door? Can you encourage your child or teen to pick out their clothes and have them ready? Can you prepare lunches the night before? These are common tips to help get ready for school, but these routine things may be more important than ever this year when there is already so much more to be thinking of.
5. Communicate with the school
If your child is managing mental health issues, it is helpful to have the lines of communication open with the school. You don’t need to wait for an issue to escalate with your child before you reach out to them. Staying connected with the school gives you an opportunity to work together as a team and ensure kids feel heard and assured that you can get through this. Read more about communicating with your child’s teacher.
6. Supporting pre-schoolers
For little ones who are going to school for the first time, it’s a really big change! And many of these kids may be experiencing pandemic protocols (like mask-wearing depending on your regions) for the first time. To help your child adjust, try visiting the school before the year starts (see more Summer Ready tips). You can work on a goodbye routine that is practiced at bedtime and then used at school drop off time – it will help them understand that just as you are there when they wake, you will be there when school is done. Try to make sure you are always on time to pick your little one up. Also, consider letting them bring a transitional object – something that will bring them comfort and help them feel connected to home while they are in class.
7. Give kids time to adjust
Different kids will be feeling different things – excitement, nervousness, uncertainty – about the return to school. It’s important to give them time to transition back – it’s a lot of change! But pay attention to signs that may be a warning of something more serious going on for them. For example, if your child is so stressed that they are not sleeping or eating well, getting persistent headaches or stomach aches, or perhaps they are wanting to stay in bed all day, it can be a sign that they need help.