After months of distance learning, your child now has the green light to go back to school for in-person learning. Maybe you’re thrilled, nervous, or both — and maybe your child is feeling a little bit of everything too. No matter where you’re located, it’s likely that things at school are going to look and feel much different than they did before. Where we are located in San Jose it appears that when children are able to return in person, they will be expected to wear masks and physically distance. Here are some tips to help prepare your child for the transition in the weeks and days leading up to the big day.
1. Involve your child in planning for the transition.
Most kids feel better about transitions when they feel they are an active part of the planning, rather than being passively swept up in a big change. Inviting your child to plan details with you around the transition will give her a sense of agency and control that will help her cope with the adjustment.
Look for opportunities to give your child a choice in what her routine is going to look like in those first days of school. Asking your child what she’d like to pack for snacks, which pencils she’s going to use, and what cool mask she’s going to wear might seem like small potatoes, but they can go a long way in making her feel confident about the day.
You can make this easier by offering two options instead of asking an open question. For example, “Would you like to have carrots or snap peas with your hummus for snack?” or “Should we dance to The Wiggles or Sesame Street on the way to school?”
2. Use visual aids when talking about what to expect.
For most children, having a visual reference will help them follow conversations about what to expect when they go back to in-person learning. If your school has distributed photos of what the classroom and lunchroom will look like with social distancing, share these with your little one while you discuss what’s going to be different. Pull down your paper calendar and look at how many days and weekends until the transition. You can even have her cross off each day in the morning to count down to the first day of school.
Additionally, you can set up a visual schedule to give your child an idea of what the rhythm of that first day is going to be like. Review it more than once beforehand. Schedules can be as detailed as you think your child will need. A schedule might look something like this:
7:00 AM Wake up and eat breakfast
7:30 AM Brush teeth and get dressed
7:45 AM Put on shoes and get in car
8:15 AM School starts
3:00 PM Dad picks up from school
3:30 PM Snack at home and play time
5:00 PM Dinner
8:15 PM Brush teeth and go to bed
When the big day comes, pointing to a digital clock with prompts like, “What time do you see on the clock?” and/or referring to the visual schedule with, “It looks like the clock says 7:30. What’s in our plan for 7:30?” can help little transitions in the morning shuffle go more smoothly. Practice using this method in the mornings leading up to day one so that it’s part of the routine.
3. Use a social story.
Social Stories are a learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and children. A social story can provide a structured way to teach your child about a challenging concept. We created a really fun, interactive story we think your little one will love! Click below to print our fun and customizable story, “A New Kind of Back to School.” If you use this with your child, be sure to send us a photo or tag us on social media.
4. Incorporate calming sensory strategies to support regulation.
Regularly incorporating calming sensory strategies like heavy work can help boost your child’s sense of well-being going into this transition. Heavy work is like a big hug to our nervous system. Providing lots of opportunities to push, pull and carry heavy items and engage in activities like climbing helps to regulate the nervous system. These strategies are great to incorporate both leading up to the day your child is going to be going back to school and the morning of their return.
You can also practice small sensory exercises like pressing the palms firmly together in front of the chest for your child to use when she’s feeling anxious or excited (“Press your palms together like you’re squishing a ball of Play-Doh!”). If your child enjoys tactile play, browsing for a few special activities to plan might help with nerves from anticipating the big change (doodling with shaving cream or making stress balls with sand and balloons might do the trick!).
5. Use a transitional object.
Your little one may have gotten used to being more attached to family members while spending most days at home recently. Don’t be surprised if this transition brings about some separation anxiety. One way to help your child feel like they are maintaining a connection with you while you’re away is by using a transitional object. Maybe you find a heart-shaped rock and paint it together for your child to stash in her backpack, or maybe you fold a little note to tuck in her pocket charged with extra kisses to tide her over until she gets home.
If your child’s school and teachers are okay with it, your child might benefit from using a sensory toy (like a stress ball or fidget) to hold her attention in the moments when she may be anxious about an impending transition while at school. If you think the trip from home to school might be particularly challenging, try allowing your child to take a favorite toy or book with her to the car, bus, or on the walk to school to help provide a feeling of continuity during the transition between activities and environments. Once the child’s nervous system feels safe following the transition, it is usually very easy for them to put the object away.
6. Use movement to keep the energy positive.
That first day back is likely to have your home buzzing with excitement. Give your child a structured outlet for those antsy wiggles with movement prompts during transitions. For example, “Let’s do kangaroo hops to the bathroom to brush your teeth!” or “Let’s see how many big jumps it takes to get from the front door to the car!” If there’s downtime while you’re getting a sibling ready or looking for your keys, you can offer a prompt like, “I wonder how many elephant stomps you can do before I get your brother’s jacket on?” Giving your child a concrete task that makes use of their electric energy can keep your morning routine moving in the right direction.
7. Try your best to lower your stress.
Transitions can be overwhelming for anyone. Spend a few minutes reflecting on your own hopes and anxieties around this transition and extend some self-compassion during this tricky time. Plan to give your child extra time on those first few mornings of school to avoid increasing the stress with the pressure to rush.
Although preparation helps, chances are, things are not going to go perfectly according to plan. Both you and your child will benefit from taking some big belly breaths in the chaos of the day. If you sense the atmosphere getting tense, try pressing pause and saying aloud, “Wow, I’m feeling like I need to stop and reset. I’m going to take five big breaths. You can join me if you’d like.” This will not only help decrease your stress response, but model good coping skills for your child, too.
Have any strategies for helping your child prepare for in-person learning? Head over to our most recent social media post and tell us what they are!