For so many parents and children, this summer has been a welcome break from an unprecedented and profoundly stressful school year.
But depending on where you live, the next academic year is only weeks or even days away. And while families should absolutely soak up every last bit of summer they can, mental health experts say it’s also helpful to prep kids for yet another transition headed their way.
“I do think that there is a percentage of kids who are going to be just fine transitioning back to school, but there is going to be a large percentage of kids that will have a harder time,” said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “I think it’s OK as a parent to be optimistic and help your child be resilient, and also not be invalidating to their potential struggles.”
Here are four easy things you can do to help your child prepare for the coming school year.
1. Be honest with them about what’s happening right now with the pandemic.
Although it looked for a moment like the COVID-19 pandemic might have started to wind down in the United States, that is clearly no longer true. Cases have risen sharply with the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, and there has been a “substantial increase” in the number of cases among children in the U.S.
Of course, parents do not need to delve into those specifics with their kids, particularly young kids. But it’s a good idea to have an open discussion now about how the pandemic is not over, even though we all want it to be. And while school is unlikely to be as disrupted and disjointed as it has been over the past 18 months, this is still not a typical school year.
“I think it’s important to say: ‘Right now, this is the plan,’” Domingues said. Tell them what day school is supposed to start. Let them know if they’re going to be wearing masks. But she also suggested saying something like: “We know that the pandemic isn’t over, and things are changing. So there might need to be some flexibility in there. And I will continue to keep you posted, and we will continue to talk.”
“Leaving the door open for communication is key,” Domingues said, “especially when things are uncertain.”
2. Drop them off somewhere.
While many children were in-person for much (if not all) of the past school year, plenty of other families have been around each other pretty much 24/7 for 18 months. And in those cases — or even if you’ve just spent a lot of quality time together over the summer — separating could be difficult, Domingues said. That’s especially true if you’ve got, say, a preschooler who just really hasn’t had a ton of experience being away from you.
Practice can help. Before school starts, give your child opportunities to leave you and spend time with peers. Maybe take them to camp, Domingues suggested. Or simply drop them off for a play date or to hang out with a family member for a few hours. It can help them get reacquainted with what it feels like to separate from you, and to learn that while it might feel uncomfortable, they can get through it.
3. Practice getting out the door.
Mornings are notoriously hectic in families, and many parents haven’t had much practice getting themselves and their children out the door. Commit to spending a few days before school starts where you set a time to wake up and a time to get out the door together. If you’re still working from home yourself, consider going into the office a few times in advance just to remind yourself what that’s like, Domingues suggested.
“That way you’re not doing it all at once come September,” she said.
However, do not feel like you have to go overboard or give up whatever relaxing mornings at home that you have left at this point, she added. And be compassionate with yourself, knowing that the transition isn’t going to be perfect no matter how much you plan ahead — and that’s OK.
“You’re preparing for the fall now, and that’s great,” Domingues said. “Also try and be in the moment and enjoy the last bits of summer, too.”
4. Go visit the school.
Try “playing in the playground, or just walking to the school and talking about the building,” Domingues suggested. “If there’s an opportunity to maybe meet a teacher or talk about who the teacher is — anything that’s going to make school feel familiar, and root children in knowing, will be helpful for the fall.”
Again, it might take some time for your kids to get comfortable no matter how much you prepare them. In any given school year, September is really a month of transition, Domingues said. By October, it’s usually clearer which children might need some additional help. (However, that timeline might be a bit different this year, she noted, as so many kids deal with yet another period of pretty significant transition.)
Trust your parenting gut, Domingues said, and don’t be afraid to reach out for extra support. Reemergence anxiety is real, and many kids are going to need a bit of extra support.
“Be in communication with the school, letting them know what your concerns are, and really advocating and fostering that community with the school,” she urged.