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Ready or Not… Expert Advice for a Smooth Start to the School Year

written by Liza Bennigson, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

The only thing certain about this school year is that no one knows what to expect. Parents, students and staff are feeling apprehensive about what the transition to full-time, on-campus learning will look like after over a year of fits and starts. We may be eager for our kids to jump right back into academics to make up for inevitable learning loss, but we also know that they first and foremost need to feel safe, secure and emotionally ready to learn. And with COVID far from over, we need to stay flexible and adaptable to cope with an uncertain short-term future.

So we asked our CHC clinicians, “what are the top back-to-school concerns you are hearing from parents and children this year and what’s your number one piece of advice for them? Here’s what we found out:

How can we keep our kids safe and help them feel less anxious?

Kids feed off of our anxieties, and if we’re outwardly nervous about them going back  to school, then they will be too. As we remind our kids to wash their hands and wear their masks, we can also reassure them that these actions are helping to keep our whole community healthy. Once they understand all the safety protocols that are in place and that we are all working together to protect each other, they may feel more at ease.

Every country, state, county, city, district, school and classroom is experiencing varying levels of risk. Instead of focusing on news stories about school closures and transmission rates, carefully track the fact-based safety information coming directly from your child’s school.  Go on a “news diet” for your family (including adults) to limit the amount of negative messaging that is piped into our houses and cars. Express valid concerns privately to trusted adults, but talk up safety protocols with kids. Listen to calming music, talk about a recent positive moment, or just smile. Focus on creating authentic positive moments in your immediate surroundings. Rest assured that emotional and physical safety is the number one priority at your child’s school.

How can we ease the transition back to early mornings and long days of learning?

Goodbye, leisurely mornings! The start of school will be a wake-up call for many of us scrambling to get out of the house on time. Gather school supplies the night before and perhaps have kids lay out what they plan to wear. Fill water bottles, pack snacks and have a mask ready. Allow yourself additional time in the morning to support your kids as they get ready for school, making sure they eat a good breakfast, make their lunch, and maybe even get a little exercise to get the endorphins flowing.

Try to model the calm and confidence you hope to see in your kids. For those who are feeling anxious, try deep breathing exercises, calming music, meditation or going for a walk around the block. Acknowledge that it’s hard to snap out of that summer schedule, and try to establish a consistent routine sooner than later.

How can we help our kids who are starting new schools or who haven’t socialized in awhile build friendships?

Because the COVID virus is transmitted as an aerosol, outdoor activities are the safest way to socialize. Things like hikes, beach days, Frisbee—those kinds of things you can do in a small group or even with just one friend. This fall we’ll have perfect weather for that. Parents can ask kids, “who would you like to invite to play wiffle ball at the park?” without making a big deal out of it. So they’re taking some initiative to make that connection. And then make it a fun, simple activity that everybody feels positive about. That builds not only connectedness, but also confidence in those kids to reach out socially.

Should parents be concerned about the learning loss that’s occurred over the past year-and-a-half? 

“I think if there are two words that we need to eliminate from everybody’s vocabulary this fall, they would be ‘catching up,’” says CHC’s Chief Education Officer, Chris Harris, MEd. “The situation isn’t right for us to do it. We need to meet the kids where they are, be grateful for what we have and recognize that there will be a time when academic rigor can re-escalate to another level. But right now is not the time to be asking teachers or students to try to catch up with that learning loss. In order for kids to learn they need–first and foremost–to feel safe, secure and emotionally ready.”

What can teachers do to help the back-to-school transition go more smoothly?

This year, it’s more important than ever for teachers to build a community of belongingness in the classroom. In order to do this, they must temporarily reduce expectations for academics and focus on emotional needs. Encourage socialization and conversation in the classroom and establish as much routine & consistency as possible. At the same time, help kids stay flexible & adaptable since no one can predict what the school year will bring. Everyone’s COVID journey has been different and we need to look at each kids’ needs individually and meet each student where they are. Parents should be open with their child’s teachers about major hardships over the past year and whether accommodations should be made. We are all in this together.

How can we brace ourselves for another year of uncertainty?

It’s hard to keep up our stamina for what may be another marathon when we thought we were nearing the finish line in June. Pace yourself.

Parents have never spent as much time with their kids as in the past year and a half. We’re exhausted by just the thought of another school year fraught with quarantines and closures.

Try to embrace the successes, however small. Practice gratitude for each new day. Be kind and forgiving of yourself and others. Prioritize social emotional growth over academic performance. Model self-care. Utilize supports available to you, like parent support groups, online resources and podcasts.

Adds Chris Harris, “I think one of the things that we have to do, because people are going to get discouraged and it’s going to be hard to keep our optimism up, is to look for short term little treats that we can offer ourselves and our families. Like revving your kids up for a Friday night sundae or a Saturday afternoon bike ride or swim at the pool–those kinds of things will help keep us okay at least in the short run. When it’s hard to make big, long-term plans, we retreat back to littler, more frequent short-term plans that can keep everybody’s motivation up a little bit more.”

And remember, if your child’s feelings ever get too big or debilitating, CHC is here for you.

Thank you to the following CHC staff members for contributing their expertise to this article: Chris Harris, MEd, Chief Education Officer; Kendra Evans Fraka, MSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker; Susan Brown, MA, Middle School Teacher; Winta Gebremichael, ASW, Classroom Clinician; and Francesca Roldan, Behavior Specialist

Do you need someone to talk to? To schedule an evaluation or to get advice about your child’s challenges, call or email a CHC Care Coordinator at 650.688.3625 or careteam@chconline.org CHC teletherapy services are available now.

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