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Adjusting to the New Normal

Ideas to help younger children cope with anxieties and prepare for an unusual school year

August 14, 2020
Young Child in Mask

As the summer winds down, there are still many unknowns about what school will look like in some communities. Schools and parents are working hard to plan for how to best keep children and educators safe while providing quality education to students.

Below are some ideas parents and other primary caregivers may consider to help children adjust to the circumstances of this school year, with its many uncertainties. Many of these ideas are in line with the National Association of School Psychologists and American School Counselor Association’s Reentry Considerations and guidance regarding talking to children about COVID. This piece is meant to be informational in nature and not to provide medical advice or recommendations. These are general considerations, but parents should contact their own providers for individualized advice for their families and children.

  • Talk with your child’s school and/or medical or professional provider to consult on what makes the most sense to support your child and family in the transition back to school. Each child is unique, and parents can adapt ideas to the individual needs of their children and family.  
  • Provide developmentally appropriate and honest information regarding the beginning of the school year to help students understand what to expect. It is important to leave time for children to ask questions. When adults remain calm in the conversation, while offering information about successfully transitioning back to school, they can help children gain an increased sense of control. It is best not to overly focus on the news or unnecessary details that might cause increased distress to children. In general, with younger children, brief descriptions (with accurate information) are helpful. Children will respond to your emotions. Offer love and reassurance and remind children that adults, including their teachers and parents, are working to keep children safe.
  • Listen to children’s questions and concerns. Remember that young children might also communicate through play.
  • If children return to in-person school, they will need to be taught new routines regarding physical distancing, hygiene, wearing masks (when required), sharing, etc. It will be important that these new social expectations are taught and reinforced with patience and care. Parents may communicate with the school to understand the new expectations so that they can also have discussions and/or practice at home as needed. For example, parents might practice wearing masks or hand-washing at home. Social stories, books, comic strips, and role-playing that model and educate about the new social routines may also be useful ways to reinforce new school expectations at school and at home.  
  • Connecting with the school and reading school communications can also help parents reinforce expectations with common words/phrases in both the home and school settings, when appropriate, so that children are better able to connect concepts. For example, if the phrases “social distancing” or “hygiene” are used in the school setting it might be helpful to use the same words at home when reinforcing expectations regarding the new routines.
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"When children have predictable routines, feel cared for, and have a sense of safety, they have a stronger foundation to learn. Making sure that there is a balanced approach to the curriculum that acknowledges the importance of supporting children’s well-being during the start of the school year will be important."

  • Connect with your child’s school if you have specific questions or concerns regarding fall plans, mental health, and family support needs, including food and/or housing assistance, etc. If parents notice significant behavioral or mood changes, they can also connect with school and/or community agencies to get referrals, if needed. Parents can connect with school counselors, school psychologists, school adjustment counselors and/or school social workers if they feel a child might benefit from additional supports at school and/or in the community. Some families might choose to reach out to their medical providers for referrals and resources for their needs. Even if these needs aren’t apparent at the beginning of the school year, keep lines of communication open with the school and providers should such needs arise at a later point. Every family and child will have their own needs, and connecting with a professional trained to help can offer more tools and resources.
  • If children will be returning to school in-person, prior to the start of school, parents may consider walking or driving by the school if it is safe to do so, and if they feel it would support their child’s comfort with the transition back to school or to starting a new school.  
  • If the school provides a way to do so, connect with the new teacher ahead of time to help increase the child’s comfort level. For example, some schools may have a teacher familiar to the child from a previous year introduce the new teacher or offer back-to-school events to meet teachers (even virtually). This way, students can see the teacher is excited to meet them and work with them.
  • Parents of children with special needs may want to communicate any additional questions or concerns to school staff regarding available supports in the upcoming school year and how they can help their children with the beginning of the school year.
  • Providing a routine is helpful to children. Knowing that the routine might need to change depending on the ongoing health situation, parents can try to plan and give warnings as much as possible if changes occur. Visual reminders of routines can also be helpful with young children.

Given the current situation, focusing on the well-being of the child will be important — especially during the beginning of the school year. The adjustment back to school is always just that — an “adjustment” — and this year brings unprecedented challenges. When children have predictable routines, feel cared for, and have a sense of safety, they have a stronger foundation to learn.  Making sure that there is a balanced approach to the curriculum that acknowledges the importance of supporting children’s well-being during the start of the school year will be important.

Parents are working hard and balancing multiple responsibilities. Parents who remember to be kind and patient with themselves, and to reach out for support when they need it, can more effectively care for their children and model positive coping strategies.

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About the Author

Photo of Jacqueline Zeller
Jacqueline Zeller
Jacqueline Zeller is lecturer on education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a licensed psychologist, school psychologist, and elementary education teacher. Her clinical interests focus on prevention and intervention efforts in schools and promoting resiliency in children.
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