Some school districts are returning to in-person learning this month, after more than a year of remote instruction.
Thousands of students around the region will be returning this month to classrooms and large-group settings for the first time in a year, but that doesn’t mean everything is back to normal.
Masks are commonplace. Social distancing rules will be in effect. And in many districts, students are grouped into cohorts, attending school in-person a few days a week, in the mornings or afternoons. And while many children and teens may be looking forward to returning to their friends and routines, they may also be worried about the changes involved.
UW News asked Janine Jones, a UW professor of school psychology who specializes in culturally responsive training for school psychologists, and Shannon Dorsey, a UW professor of child clinical psychology who specializes in evidence-based treatment for children and adolescents, for some back-to-school tips for young people and their families.
What are some of the things students (and parents) might need to adjust to?
Janine Jones: For those students who have not had a “COVID pod,” or bubble of people that they were in contact with during the past year, they will likely feel unsure of themselves and self-conscious about their social connections. There will likely be moments of awkwardness as they try to find their people again. They may have moments of wonder about how to interact physically: For example, lots of kids naturally hug one another. Now they have been socialized to avoid doing so. They will need to be taught new rules for how to interact with people that they care deeply about. Many of us have had that moment where there is the irresistible urge to hug someone we haven’t seen in forever. I have found myself saying at least once, “OK, tighten up your mask and hold your breath! I’m coming in for a hug!” Kids will need something to guide them into how to show they care in new ways.
Shannon Dorsey: Students are returning to interactions that will look different — but many kids have adjusted so well already to COVID-19 expectations, like that if you’re on the playground, you’re wearing a mask. They can do it, and they already do it! You see chase games with all kids fully masked. In some ways, I think mask-wearing has been a bigger challenge for adults than for kids. Summer camps and parents have organized ways to make distancing feel more normal (sitting in hula hoops, 6 feet apart, or on markings). Strategies that work to change children’s other behaviors can work on mask compliance and distancing, too — like commenting on and praising the things you want to see in students, such as keeping their masks on, and over their noses and mouths.
What might children and teens be anxious about?
SD: Some children and teens may have some social or school anxiety, especially if they were already anxious and had a year of being out of school and large groups. Facing up to fears, like reengaging with peers and being in class, will likely bring on some increased anxiety, but it will decline as the youth gets back into these interactions.
Of course, some youth may also be anxious about the COVID-19 risks of being together in schools. Parents and caregivers can help by reviewing what we know about the science and the actual (versus the perceived or felt) risks of going back to school, and sharing it in developmentally appropriate ways. Masks and social distancing are great prevention strategies. Schools haven’t been major spreaders, when masks, social distancing and cohorts are used, and when cases in communities aren’t too high. If a young person is particularly worried and not feeling confident, parents might work with them to make their own list of reasons school can be safe, which they can review and work into a coping statement. Younger kids might enjoy turning this kind of discussion into a recorded “public service announcement” or poster (just for their own family) — essentially a fun way to help the child internalize that school can be safe.
JJ: There is a continuum of ways that youth are responding to the return. Some are longing to return to school, while others are thriving in their home environments. Across the entire continuum, there is anxiety. Students who are longing to return may experience anxiety about how their friendships have changed. They may worry that they won’t be able to focus in a classroom when they know the teacher is looking at them. They may worry about being judged by others because their previous experience at school was not so positive (but they still feel that going back is better than learning alone).
On the other end of the continuum, there may be youth who are socially more introverted. They may have anxiety about all of the social challenges they previously experienced when trying to build relationships at school. It will feel like the first day of school all over again until they feel connected and comfortable. If I (or my school psychology students) are working with youth on either end of the continuum, we would talk with them about their strengths and what makes them feel good about themselves. If they happen to be a youth who experiences panic attacks, we would spend time working through specific fears and scenarios well before the return. We would also have the youth know who the mental health providers are in the school, so that they can prepare to reach out to them if needed.
How can school be a safe, welcoming space to come back to?
JJ: Schools MUST center the mental health needs of kids right now. Yes, the business of school is all about academic learning, but the truth is that schools must serve the minds AND hearts of our youth. The current youth mental health crisis is real. The prevalence of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation is higher than ever before. Schools need to recognize that our youth are bringing their losses, pain, anxiety, and their hopes and dreams to school. A safe, welcoming environment recognizes the whole child, gives them a place to see themselves as valued and important, and provides a window into a hopeful future. The days of pressure cooker education must not return. They need an environment where they can be in community with others and truly feel like they are living and learning together.
How can families and teachers help ease the transition?
SD: Routine changes and transitions are hard for kids. I think we can ease the transition by knowing that the first weeks will be hard. Expectations may be high, and kids may struggle with being back in groups with only some of their classmates. Because this is a big transition and change, it can help to keep some other things and routines the same — like for elementary-age children, maintain bedtime and other activities you’ve established for time after school.
JJ: All adults can spend time normalizing these feelings for youth: Talk about anxiety and fear as feelings that we all have. We have all experienced the complex ways that COVID-19 has impacted us socially. We had to learn new rules to interact with one another virtually, and some of those new rules are skills that we can continue to use in the future. Talk about hope for the future and how we all have gifts and talents that might look a little different for a few more months, but they still exist within us. Plan for how to use those strengths every day and make a new place in the world for the new “you.”
All adults should model for the youth in their lives how to focus on what is most important, to not let the smaller hassles and annoyances take over our emotional well-being. Showing our youth how to have a renewed focus on what is most important and meaningful to them is critical. Adults should share their own examples of how they are able to put the little things of the past in perspective, and teach our youth how to look for and focus their emotional energy on the issues and experiences in life that matter the most to them.