As September draws closer, we finally have a sense of what school will look like for our children. Whether your child’s school will start off totally virtual or have some form of in-person instruction, it is clearly not the traditional back-to-school experience that we’ve known.
Amy Forrer, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and internal medicine physician with Emerson Family Medicine of Maynard, and a mother of three school-age children, shares these tips to help kids successfully navigate their return to learning.
- Mask etiquette: Teach your children how to wear their masks properly. (Be sure they remove them using the ear straps instead of the fabric for optimal hygiene!) Encourage them to practice wearing masks for short periods at home and especially when they are out in public, gradually increasing the amount of time that they can tolerate the mask. Plan to supply your children with extra masks for school. Children need to hear from their parent that masks are one of the best ways to protect ourselves and others from getting COVID-19.
- Encourage proper hygiene: Encourage hand washing often, have some fun with it by singing a song or telling some jokes while they wash. Establish consistent house rules about hand washing, including every time before family members leave home and come into the home from outside, after going to the bathroom, and before and after eating.
- Reading: Keep reading to younger children and encourage older children to read books of their choice. Helpful resources are school and library reading lists. If you have not already, this is a good time to establish a quiet, designated learning area in your home for your child. Ask your child what is needed to be successful completing school assignments at home.
- Socialize again with other children: During this time of stay-home, millions of children around the country have halted playdates and socializing in-person with their peers. While this was essential for health reasons and to help slow the spread of the virus, it can make it tricky when students are back in the classroom with their friends and peers. Now is the time to reorient children to socializing in a safe way. Choose a family you know and trust to have a physically distanced picnic at the school playground or a local park. Most children will bounce back to socializing, but it might be helpful for them to do so with a parent present first, before school starts.
- Get back on a regular sleep schedule: Many students have been on a different sleep schedule throughout the pandemic. They are likely going to bed later and getting up later in the morning. Parents can start incrementally pushing up bedtime in mid-August to help ease the transition. Try to follow a consistent bedtime routine and avoid electronics.
- Have conversations: Having open, age-appropriate conversations with your children will help them know they are not alone, that we do not have all the answers, that flexibility is very important in this time of COVID-19, and that scientists, health experts, parents, teachers and other leaders are doing everything possible to ensure their health and safety.
- Remember, we're all in it together: Talk with your children and help them understand that anyone can get the virus, no matter where they are from in the world. This is important to reduce any potential stereotypes and ensure compassion and equity in the classroom and beyond.
- School may remain virtual for some: Some families may decide not to send their children to school this season for various reasons. Explain to your children that every family is different and that household members’ medical conditions and other factors influence parental decisions about returning to school.
- Prevent separation anxiety: After spending many long months at home, children may feel nervous about going back to school and being apart from family members. Have conversations about going back to school and try to 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.
- Be available: Your children may react to changes in the school in various ways. Be ready for some behavior changes — such as acting out in younger children and quietness in teens. Remember that pillow time 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 feelings and you may be surprised how much you learn about them.
We hope these tips are helpful. Preparing children for back-to-school this year will be different, yet some things, such as flexibility, sleep and support, remain the same. If you have any questions or concerns about your child's mental or physical health, contact your pediatrician. Stay tuned to your local school district for the latest details and plans for the upcoming school year.
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