Key Strategies to Help Your Child Transition Back to School During a Pandemic

Change is hard for all of us. Since the onset of COVID-19 in 2019, we have been in a constant state of flux. Families went from routines and always being on the go to sheltering-in-place in their homes.

Overnight, work and education went from outside in, shifting from offices and schools to our kitchen tables. Therapy sessions moved home and telehealth became the new normal. We did kitchen kindergarten and remote therapy for a while before transitioning to summer. Now, as the days grow shorter and the aisles at Target are filled with bright yellow Crayola boxes, it’s time to think about school again.

Transitions can mean challenges, especially when they are sprung upon us. As adults, we can work through them in our minds and approach them rationally. For children, it can be more difficult. They are not able to pivot as easily, and it can cause unrest or frustration. As you prepare to transition back to school in the time of COVID-19, here are some strategies to make the shift smoother.

Communication is Key

Even if your child is too young to understand what is going on with COVID, it is important to communicate what you can. Help them understand what will stay the same and what will be different as they approach the school year. Will they participate in in-person learning or will their classes be conducted remotely? Will masks be required? Address these questions and concerns well in advance of school starting to allow time for them to feel comfortable. A great way to help your child understand is through role-playing. Having your child play the part of the adult and the parents play as the child is a great way to help your child understand and identify effective behaviors connected to different situations as you are modeling appropriate behaviors.

If your child has sensory issues or a disability that will prevent them from wearing a mask, communicate with their school or Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) team before starting school. Engage your therapy team in the process. Lean on your team to help troubleshoot any concerns about additional safety precautions.

Normalize Masks

Many school districts plan to wear masks in the fall. If your child will wear a mask to school, let them be a part of the process of picking out some fun masks so they feel included. Normalize masks by wearing them together around the house or on errands so they get used to the feeling of a mask on their face.

Children may have a harder time recognizing people in masks. According to a recent NY Times article, children do not start to recognize a person as a whole until they are six years old, which may cause them trouble recognizing faces when they are partially covered. To help with comfort, put on your masks and take them off a few times so that your child recognizes that you are still mom or dad, mask or not.

Many children prepare for school by buying new school supplies and even outfits. Make your child’s mask part of this by having them pick out a new mask for the first day of school. This will motivate them to wear it and show it off to their friends (example: a child loves Mickey Mouse so they may pick out a mask with a Mickey Mouse nose).

Stay Connected

It is tough to stay connected when we are socially distancing. It is time to get creative! Find ways to stay connected to friends, family, and your child’s school while you are at home. Follow your local health department’s guidelines. Consider some of these options to keep close from afar.

  • Have a Skype Date: this is great for parents and kids alike to feel connected. Grab a few friends and hop online for a Skype or Zoom call. Everyone can call in from the privacy of their own home with no risk of germs. In the weeks leading up to school have a virtual session with a few of your child’s classmates and maybe even their teacher.
    Socially Distanced Playtime: if you are comfortable, you can host a socially distanced playtime with one of your child’s friends. Get together somewhere outdoors and “share” a snack. Each child can bring a blanket to sit on and a snack to enjoy while they catch up.
  • Get a pen pal: since we have been separated by COVID, communication has changed. People are writing more letters and emails to stay connected. Help your child draw a card for their new teacher or a classmate, letting them know how excited they are about the new school year.
  • Review, Prep & Plan: If your child has an IEP, starting the school year can mean even more prep. Review your child’s existing IEP so you can address any concerns about how their needs will be met in school with any COVID procedures in place. Make sure that you are all on the same page before the school year begins.

Celebrate the End of Summer

While it may look different, it does not have to be less fun. Celebrate the end of summer and the start of the new school year with a staycation or a family party. In our house, the kids love a party, and any occasion calls for balloons and a sweet treat. A celebration can show your child that the start of a new school year is something to be excited about, not feared.

Adjust Bedtimes

In preparation for transitioning back to school, have your child begin to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier in the morning. Two weeks prior to the start of school, start having your child go to bed earlier and earlier each night, until reaching the desired bedtime three nights before school begins. With summer and the three months prior having had a very relaxed and different type of schedule, getting back to a routine could be beneficial for your child in transitioning back to school.

Remember, we are all in this together. These changes are impacting everyone, as we transition again, we will do it as a team.

Anne Pereira has 30+ years of experience working with special needs children as a teacher and transition coordinator. Anne’s multitude of qualifications also includes her three Bachelor of Science Degrees as a Teacher of the Handicap, Elementary Education Teacher, and Teacher of Early Childhood, and a Master’s in Administration. Anne helps run the Partial Care Day Program (PCP) and Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). Our article is also published in PsychCentral’s Blog

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