My family finally has a back to school date! While my kids are excited to go back, they know there will be some major adjustments because of the pandemic, and this is causing them some unease as well. Adding in the uncertainty of this year, along with new precautions like wearing masks, the usual back-to-school jitters have ramped up a bit more than usual. Because of this, I decided to talk to Monica Sullivan, MD
, from The Christ Hospital Physicians - Primary Care
about easing the transition during this year.
School starts for my kids at the end of August, but there is still a lot that is unknown. What are some good ways to explain that to younger children? How much information should kids be told so that they are not frightened?Dr. Sullivan:
Kids respond well to reassurance and a stable schedule. Keeping a calm and informative environment at home is important. If adults/parents are anxious and panicked it will transmit to the kids and they will feel that anxiety and panic. Starting a routine/schedule in the few weeks prior to school is important. A set wake-up time, outside time, and bedtime will help ease the transition. Be open to questions and have small discussions with the kids to allow them to communicate their anxiety points to you. Let them ask questions and you are aware of the child’s line of thought, you can direct further discussion. Simple truthful facts are the most helpful.
Show them a picture of the virus if the child is curious and wants to know more. Most children are aware that washing hands and covering coughs/sneezes is important and even more important now, to avoid giving the virus a chance to spread to other people. Some children are more curious than others and more in-depth information may be appropriate, whereas other children will accept a simple explanation of what a virus is and why it is important to wash hands, wear a mask, etc. Making it as lighthearted as you can, and even fun, will help.
How can we teach them to be “flexible” when it comes to a possible constant changing schedule?Dr. Sullivan:
Kids will reflect quite a bit of their feelings based upon how the adults around them are adjusting to the constant change. Keeping the basic schedule stable will be most helpful. Wake-up time, lunch/outside, bedtime routine are good basic steps to follow. Keeping the discussion open to allow for their questions and answering honestly is the key to keeping anxiety at bay. Even taking 2-3 minutes at night to discuss the routine for the next day will help keep a calm environment. Kids also like to have a say in their schedule. Maybe allow a set amount of time daily for requests to do exactly what they want to do.
Last year ended on a very emotional note for a lot of kids. Activities were cancelled and they have spent summer worrying about this fall. How can we prepare them mentally for the new school year? What about kids who are afraid to go back due to the virus? What are some ways to ease those fears?
Preparation is key. Answering questions honestly and as they come up will help keep the discussion open. Many school districts are providing daily/weekly updates by email to parents as the information changes. As those emails come in, share them with your child. Staying relaxed with an open mind will help model the same behavior for the child. Staying focused on the moment will help avoid panic and fear of the future. Making a daily schedule each night and overall weekly plan will help keep things current and in the moment for the child. Many children and adults fear the virus. Treating the virus as a part of the “new normal” will help with adaptation, and placing thoughts of the virus into daily life will help take the fear out of the unknown (washing hands multiple times a day at home, working up to wearing the facial covering, etc.). Explaining in a factual manner that the virus is a “germ” and we don’t want to share germs with other people is an understandable and factual way to discuss it with the child. Asking the child what they understand about the virus may give you an idea of what they are thinking and their line of thought on the subject. That will also direct you in your discussions.
We already know that the kids will have to social distance if they are in the classrooms. What are some tips for explaining to them and how to help them understand how important it is?
The term “social distance” is a hard concept for children (and some adults) to comprehend. If you keep it simple and show them the physical space they will likely understand the concept much better. Kids (and many adults) are very social creatures. Allowing them to chatter and be active with other kids is very important - showing them the physical distance they need to keep will help them understand that they will still be around other children and teachers, just a bit further apart than before. Creating the image in their mind that they will still be able to play with their friends and teacher, connect, and interact is very important. Keeping the concept of the virus as a “germ” and avoiding giving it to others is an easy way to explain. Sort of like the “hot potato” game from back in childhood. We want to avoid touching the hot potato (in this case the virus/germ) to keep from getting burned/infected is an easy way to imagine the distancing concept.
We are always teaching and encouraging kids to share. This will be problematic not only with school supplies but also things like lunch items. What are some tips for handling that in a positive way?Dr. Sullivan:
Using the idea of the virus particle as a germ will be a helpful image. That concept of “hot potato” is a very helpful concept for children. Allowing them to share stories and chatter instead of tangible items is important. Reinforcing keeping “hands to self” as well as “lunch and school supplies to self”, as learned in preschool and kindergarten can be reminded multiple times. Constant reinforcement will be needed. Teaching kindness in words instead of the physical act of sharing as kindness can help redirect behavior.
Hand washing will be more important than ever. Any fun ideas that we can teach our kids so they don’t look at it as a chore?Dr. Sullivan:
Hand washing at home and establishing a routine for it prior to the start of school will help this greatly. Practice washing hands each hour at home. Kids can use their counting/ABC skills. Having them say their numbers to 20-25 or ABCs or naming animals and colors while washing hands will keep them distracted. Singing a song may also make it fun - once the introduction is made it will become routine and then it will become a habit for them. Washing with them and modeling that behavior at home will be greatly helpful.
Children will likely be required to wear face masks on the bus and when not at their desk. What are good ways to prepare them for that?Dr. Sullivan:
Once again, modeling and practice are key here. Allowing them to play with the mask and get used to it will help. Modeling the proper way to wear a mask and slowly introducing it will enable the child to get comfortable. Start with 5-10 minutes and work up to an hour+ of wear at home. Experiment with different types and materials. Each child will be different with their comfort level and preferences. Modeling home-wear of masks will be greatly helpful. Teaching kids to speak clearly and slowly will help them learn to communicate with them on. Covering the face makes facial expressions/non-verbal cues/and modeling speech more difficult. Practicing talking with your child, speaking up, laughing, making angry faces, surprised faces, happy faces with the mask on will teach the child how to look for other cues during their days in school with other students and teachers. Keep a positive attitude and provide reassurance to the child whenever possible. Children will adapt very quickly (often more quickly than adults) - they just want to move on and have as much fun as possible.
Thank you, Dr. Sullivan! So, the best thing to do is start practicing these new habits at home and be honest and calm when explaining this virus to your children. Making wearing a mask fun is a great way to ease their fears and anxiety. I took Dr. Sullivan’s advice and noticed that it helped with getting my kids prepared for all the changes that they will be dealing with when they head back to school soon.
Having a reliable health partner like Dr. Sullivan who knows your history and needs is important, especially right now! Schedule an appointment online with a primary care provider near you today.