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.