Every year at this time signs indicate back-to-school season: parents start to receive messages from the school, students are assigned classes, and families start to prepare for the new academic year.
This year, the start of school aligns with the eighteenth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it, more scientific knowledge and data, as well as tools to help keep children safe. While specific safety protocols will come from your town health department and school leadership, these tips are designed to help families have a good start to the school year.
1. Flexibility is key. Talk with your children about the importance of staying flexible. Protocols that may be in place in September may change as the school year goes on. With a flexible attitude, children and parents can build resiliency that will help pave the way for a smooth year.
2. Have conversations. Candid, age-appropriate conversations with your children will help them know they are not alone. Although we do not have all the answers, scientists, health experts, parents, teachers, and other leaders are working hard to ensure their health and safety.
3. Get back to a regular sleep schedule. Many students are on a different sleep schedule throughout the summer. Parents can start incrementally pushing up bedtime in August to help ease the transition. Try to follow a consistent bedtime routine and avoid electronics in the bedroom.
4. Prevent separation anxiety. Children may feel nervous about going back to school and being apart from family members. Have conversations about school and develop tools for your child to feel connected to home, such as notes in their lunchbox, or a family photo they can bring to school.
5. Have a plan. Family routines changed during the pandemic. Parents who worked from home may now need to go to the workplace. One of the best ways to help a child feel supported is to ensure they know where all family members are and how to reach them if needed. Consider placing a white board in the kitchen noting where each family member is each day.
6. Communicate with your child’s teacher. Let your child’s teacher and guidance counselor know if something is going on that might affect the student, such as the loss of a parent’s job, a death in the family, a divorce, or other significant life change. Teachers do best when they know what is going on in their students’ lives that could impact their ability to focus, socialize, and come to school ready to learn.
7. Make time to listen. Your children may react to changes in their routine in various ways. Be ready for some behavior changes — such as acting out in younger children and quietness in teens. Before bed is a good time to listen to your child recount events and feelings from the day. This extra time provides a safe environment for children to express their emotions and you may be surprised how much you learn about them.
8. Watch for signs of stress. Stay tuned to warning signs that your child, grandchild, or someone you love might need mental health support. These signs include:
- Sudden changes in activities or behaviors
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Trouble in school or extracurricular activities, including missing homework or ending participation
- Reckless behavior, such as withdrawing or acting rebellious, aggressive, or overly impulsive
- Signs of depression, such as excessive isolation
- Substance use or abuse
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Destructive behaviors such as self-injury
- Talking or writing about suicide and death.
If you are concerned about your child, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. Call 911 if it is a potentially life-threatening situation. You can also find resources for suicide prevention on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s website.
9. Do not delay your child's health care. Many health issues can be easily managed when recognized early, but can lead to challenges if caught later. Your pediatrician will keep your child up-to-date on immunizations and routine screenings to aid their overall health.
10. Foster a positive digital environment. Digital media use can have positive and negative impacts on mental health. Encourage your family to disconnect on a regular basis. Explore our digital wellness resources to learn ways to provide a healthy digital environment.
11. Last, but certainly not least, take care of yourself. It is important to take care of yourself, as well as your family. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poor mental health in parents can contribute to poor mental and physical health in children. Take some time for yourself and plan opportunities to do the things you love. Other self-care tips include exercising, eating healthy, and getting a good night’s sleep.
Preparing children for back-to-school will go a long way in smoothing the transition and starting the school year off in a positive way. Contact your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about your child's physical or mental health. Also, stay tuned to your local school district for the latest details and plans for the upcoming school year.