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Making a Smooth Transition

In this unusual year, simple parenting strategies can help ease young children's worries about going back to school

July 21, 2020
Child hugging parent's arm headed into school

With schools in such an unusual state over the past few months, younger children (in grades preschool–2) may struggle to understand that the last school year ended and that, when they return to school this fall, the setting will have changed. Not only will COVID-19 guidelines bring new procedures, but most children will be entering a different grade, in a different classroom, with a different teacher and classmates, maybe partially or wholly online — all without benefit of the “ending” rituals of the prior year that help ease the transition from one school setting to another.

How can we prepare young children with minimal school experience for these transitions — and how do parents explain them in a way that makes sense? Melissa Butler, former kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools and founder of the Children’s Innovation Project and the reimaginging project, and Junlei Li, the Saul Zaentz senior lecturer of early childhood education, provide simple strategies that parents can start to use now.

How should parents prepare small children for the new school year, when they didn’t get a real ending to the last year?

Melissa Butler: Be honest and clear and direct about things. Talk through everything … . Remember out loud how children got to school last year and the door they went in and who was there to greet them and how they hugged this person or that person. And talk through how [this fall] we don't know yet what door we will go in and who we will see at first, but we know there will be someone there. We might not be able to see their faces well because of masks. Some things might look funny and different. This is going to be a long list of things, but young children won't get bored by talking through the exact sequence of things they remember and talking through how they might be.
 
Make a calendar. Help children see the extent of time from now to when school starts and talk through the time. Have children draw pictures about their memories of school. Older children might even draw a map... this will help them talk through the where/who/what of school.
 
How can we prepare kids for some of the new COVID-related procedures?

MB: Play with tools and objects children will see. Get a mask or two, maybe of various kinds if you hear that teachers will be wearing a see-through mask or a shield. Get a digital thermometer, maybe a measuring stick to show 6 feet, other things you know children will see when they go back to school. Play with these objects to allow children to make sense of them and work through any fears about them. Since many of these things are actual tools, I suggest to parents that they get a cardboard box or a lower shelf and put a unique set of tools there and let children know that these items are tools for playing.

Junlei Li: Play, of course, is children’s “work” — the way they express and process all the knowns and unknowns, the anxious and the exciting. I think children need solitary times to play “school” or “virus,” so they can “work it out” in their own head; they need times to play with their siblings/peers; and they would always be happy to play with the grown-ups. If parents can observe how children play alone or with siblings, we might be able to catch a glimpse of what they are wondering about, what they understand (which would often surprise us!), and what they misunderstand about what’s coming when school starts.

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"Even though things were/are always 'uncertain,' it feels more uncertain now. I think this is a good word to talk about with young children. Use it often and talk things through."

With so many details of how school will work still unknown, how can parents really prepare their children?

MB: Talk explicitly about certainty and uncertainty, what is likely to happen and what is a mystery, and the many ranges of things. Even though things were/are always uncertain, it feels more uncertain now. I think this is a good word to talk about with young children. Use it often and talk things through. In the morning, I am certain Willow (my cat) will meow for her food and then ask to go outside. It might not happen, but that would be strange. When I go outside, I might see a bird on my wall, but I might not. I am not as certain about that. I don't expect it to happen each morning. How certain are we that it will rain today? How long the bees might stay on that flower? If my parent will tuck me in and say good night? Talk through all the things in a day and help children wonder about how some things are more predictable than others.

Then, when talking through school, a parent can say honestly and in a way children will understand, “We know ___ will happen and we know you will see ___ , but we don't know ____, we aren't certain about ____.”  And then, comforting children that we do know that ____ will drop them at school (or bus stop) and ___ will hug them when they come home from school.

JL: I really like the idea of helping children use a new word to describe what we are all going through, rather than just relying on words that children already know. I really like Melissa’s suggestion here. “Uncertain” is a very grown-up word, and children are excited to learn a grown-up word. It’s much more neutral and precise than “scary,” for example, because uncertainty isn’t necessarily going to be “scary.”

Our ability to tolerate uncertainty, to manage and express our feelings while facing uncertainty, is a big part of our self-regulation, too, not just for children, but for grown-ups. I think we are tempted to have certainty “right away,” in the same way that children may be tempted to “eat the marshmallow.” But learning to live with uncertainty and still be able to enjoy learning, friendship, and relationships (with adults) is such an important growth for children.
 
How can parents encourage and support their children’s feelings during this time?

MB: I think now, especially, children need to let their feelings move and shift and change and release. Thus, dancing feelings, drawing feelings on paper in abstract ways (like dancing on paper), singing/making sounds are important... as adults, we can help children keep their feelings fluid and moving rather than fixing them with names. Instead of asking "How are you feeling?" or "Do you feel ____?" we can say, "Let's show our feelings on this paper" or "Let's try to move our bodies to show our feelings." Keep feelings plural, flexible/fluid, unnamed (or not always named).

Of course I need to connect with at least one Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode. In the opening of episode 1646, Fred "draws a song" on a pad of paper, and I think it is a beautiful example of drawing something we can't touch. I shared this with some families in a virtual session last Friday, and the children on the call jumped right into drawing songs (and feelings and stories) in their minds. Sometimes parents find it a challenge to ask their children to draw their feelings, etc. But playing this segment of Fred talking with children might help get them started.

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"I think children will always find ways to tell us how they feel, just not always in a form or language we anticipate. So by creating many different ways and spaces for them to 'tell' us, we have more and more opportunity to not just 'hear,' but also 'feel' their feelings."

JL: I particularly appreciate what Melissa suggested about alternatives to “How are you feeling?” I think with both children and adults who are struggling with uncertainty, it can often be very hard to articulate directly and in words what they are feeling. How do children describe feelings about things they don’t know and can’t know? But they definitely have feelings about it. We can learn a lot about how they choose to express feelings in ways that are more suited for them: in drawing, singing, dancing, and playing. I think children will always find ways to tell us how they feel, just not always in a form or language we anticipate. So by creating many different ways and spaces for them to “tell” us, we have more and more opportunity to not just “hear,” but also “feel” their feelings.
 
My only concrete suggestion for parents during this time is that to find 15 minutes, twice a week, to sit down with a child and just follow how he/she/they want to play a game. Participate and follow, but do not lead/drive. If the child isn’t ready for you to participate, say nothing and just watch and observe and listen intently. The child will know that you are paying attention, and attention from a parent is one of the most coveted things of a child.

I know parents are stressed and overwhelmed, and have lots of things they need to do to guide, teach, and support their children. I hope 15 minutes, twice a week, is manageable. Those 15 minutes may be a helpful period of quiet for the parents, too, from working/cooking/cleaning/caretaking/worrying/news-watching.

This is similar to a small intervention called “banking time” that helped to reduce the stress level of very stressed (behaviorally challenging) children in preschool. Just 10–15 minutes, 2–3 times a week with a teacher helped them a great deal (with results measurable by cortisol levels in their saliva). If a teacher, who has many children to attend to, can be helpful to a stressed child in this way, I can imagine how much more helpful and potent a parent’s 15 minutes can be.

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Easing Back-to-School Transitions for Young Children — Amid COVID Uncertainty
  • Be honest, clear, and direct. Talk to children about how they got to school last year, the door they went in, who was there to greet them, etc. Talk about the rituals they remember and how things might stay the same or look different this year.
  • Talk explicitly about certainty and uncertainty, about what is likely to happen and what is still unknown. Learning to live with uncertainty and still be able to enjoy learning, friendship, and relationships is a key growth skill.
  • Amid this time of stress, find 15 minutes, twice a week, to sit down with a child and just follow how they want to play a game. Children will be calmed and reassured by your attention.
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Early Childhood K-12 Parenting and Community Social-Emotional Wellbeing