Helping Negotiate the Stress of Returning to School During the Pandemic.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;” so said Charles Dickens in a Tale of Two Cities. To some extent, that is what parents and students are experiencing right now. Most parents are tickled that their children are returning to school and on-campus learning. Helping with online classes has been difficult. Keeping that Kindergarten student engaged, helping the Intro to Calc student master new skills, managing safe playdates and the like has been exhausting. Now we seem to see a light at the end of the tunnel. How do we negotiate the maze of information and find the right answer for the family?

First, parents have to decide if their kid should go back to on-campus learning. They struggle with weighing the danger to immune-compromised folks in their household against the need for their children to interact with the teacher, fill the void that has been left by in their social lives since schools went to online learning, and the myriad other benefits of normal classes.

Next, they must convince themselves that they made the right decision. Kids quickly pick up on feelings of ambiguity that parents try to disguise. Let them understand the decision-making process and be certain that they aren’t endangering Grandma or another loved one if they go back. Even little ones will be struggling with whether or not they want to return to class themselves. If they see you haven’t decided for sure that it is safe, their anxiety will skyrocket.

Let your children talk about going back and how they feel about it. Just because you had a good student with lots of friends doesn’t mean they won’t have conflicted feelings about the change. They will wonder if they will catch the virus. They will wonder if they are endangering Mom and Dad. They will wonder if it is wrong to be happy to leave Mom and Dad with whom they have been spending lots of time. They will wonder if it will hurt their parents’ feelings if they are excited about going back. Take the time to listen and discern what concerns they have. Don’t present a list of “Are you worried about…” questions. Let them tell you what concerns them and accept their reality. Don’t tell them not to be silly when they ask if it hurts your feelings that they want to go to on-campus classes or pose any other question to you. If they tell you they are worried, accept that the concern is of importance to them.

Work through “what-ifs” with them. Telling a student that they will fit in perfectly and all will be sweetness and light to a kid who has been ignored or bullied isn’t going to help him or her face what is coming. Explain their options carefully. Treat their issues realistically. Painting a rose-colored picture of what is coming…everyone will be friends, no one will bully you…when that hasn’t been the case in the past will not reassure them. It will simply reinforce the idea that parents don’t have a clue what really goes on once they leave the house.

Here is a list of suggestions from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation to help.

  • Don’t be afraid to discuss coronavirus, but be age-appropriate and, As much as possible, try to project a sense of calm and control.
  • Help your child understand the importance of social distancing, handwashing, and wearing a mask.
  • Whether your child is going to a classroom, being homeschooled, or participating in virtual classes, try to help them focus on the positive aspects of the experience.
  • Make sure your child is eating well, getting enough sleep, and keeping physically active.
  • Try to maintain a structured daily routine at home.
  • Remind teenagers often that they are helping to protect others by following health guidelines.
  • If your child is participating in distance learning, create opportunities for them to socialize safely with friends, perhaps via video chats or FaceTime.
  • Reassure children about safety measures in place to keep students and teachers healthy. Remind children that they can also help prevent germs spreading by washing their hands with soap and coughing or sneezing into their elbow.
  • Consistently communicate with your child about your school districts and your families’ own back-to-school plans and listen to their concerns. It is important to encourage and remind children to be flexible as plans may change.

You can find more information from the Brain and Behavior Foundation at

One thing that can help both parents and children alike is to practice some of the stress coping skills that have worked in the past. Turn off the TV and all other devices. Sit in a relaxed posture where everyone is comfortable and tell a story that they have heard before. Suggest that they might close their eyes and imagine the background of the tale. Not the place, of course, for dragons and giants, but for happy children and pretty places. Begin deep breathing with them. Start counting breaths. In…1, 2, 3, 4. Blow it out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Encourage them to imagine the breath coming from their toes, making room for a big, healthy inhale. Increase the length of the space between breaths. Encourage them to relax. When you think they are with you as you breathe, suggest that they imagine a favorite place the family has been together. A beach or a ski hill or a lake or a hiking trail or, for that matter, the family kitchen or living room. Walk them through the experience. At the end, suggest they continue deep breathing, and tell them they can open their eyes and return to the room. If they are in a good spot, begin to discuss the pros and cons of going back to campus. They will feel safe, and you might get results that would have been missed had you not prepared for the discussion.

Simple relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive relaxation (where you begin relaxing at your toes and tighten and relax as you go up your body) will help all of your family settle down, ready for great interaction with each other.

If you need a refresher course on coping skills, take a look at Children and Stress published by Whole Person Associates,

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