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How do I “School” Again?

It’s been a strange year and a half for all of us, but especially for kids. As kids start going back to school in person, many are apprehensive (as are parents) and others are excited (as are parents!) to be returning “back to normal.” Despite the fact that many kids already have been to school before and know how it works, it can still feel strange and unfamiliar to them. Take a second to remember what it was like returning to school for the first time after summer. Or what it might be like for those of you who went back to the office after being gone for months. It’s familiar, but still feels a little different.

One thing that can help parents (and teens) is to be prepared for changes in behavior at home once school starts and know that this can be a normal response to a change. Some things you might see after the first few days or weeks at school:

  • Increased irritability, anger or frustration

  • Regression in behaviors

  • Isolation or increased sleep

  • Defiance or shutting down

  • Seeming more “clingy” or “needy”

  • Worry, anxiety or agitation

Remember that behavior can often be the way that we communicate a message as to how we are feeling internally. Many of us are either not able to articulate our emotions or can’t identify what is going on. Pay close attention to the meaning behind the behavior, not the specific behavior. Now, this doesn’t mean that you approve of negative behaviors, but responding solely to the “what” they are doing doesn’t resolve the “why” they are doing it. Even those who are looking forward to going back may have strong reactions that are surprising.

Tips for Teens/Tweens at this time:

Try to get on a schedule: Our brains and bodies like routine. Part of what makes change so hard is the shock to our physical bodies. The more you can get into a consistent routine, the better you will feel.

Pause to identify what you are feeling: “Name it to tame it.” Simply by recognizing our feelings, they can become more manageable.

Go easy on yourself: Change is hard. Give yourself time to get acclimated.

Focus on what is going well: Generally, try and recognize one thing that went well each day to get your brain in the habit of being more optimistic.

Ways to support children through this change:

Observe without judgment: Pay attention to what you are seeing and be curious. Look for patterns of how your kids are acting and when their behaviors change. Try not to focus on the actions but look instead at the subtext. For example: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been spending a lot more time in your room. Have you noticed that?” or “It seems like something I said just upset you. That wasn’t my intention. How can I support you?”

Listen more than talk: Often, just being around and being silent gives kids the opportunity to fill the silence with whatever is on their mind. As hard as it is, leave space and wait for them to say more. Try not to ask too many questions as kids can often get more overwhelmed with questioning and shut down or lash out.

Implement a new schedule for family time: Now that routines are changing, it’s an opportunity to add a family night or family time when possible. Perhaps a movie night, game night or evening walk.

Switch up the rules around screen time again: Sit down as a family and re-negotiate what would be reasonable for screen time. If kids feel they have some input, they are less likely to argue about screen time. Try to have screen free meals and establish a nightly cut-off time. You can use the start of the year as an opportunity to create a new plan. Try saying: “Now that school is starting again, I think it would be good if we figured out how we want to handle screen time. I want to make an effort to put my phone down more, so I think it would be good if we had meals without phones. What do you think would be a good way to handle screen time?”

Try for one-on-one time: If you’re able to, try to fit in some solo time with each child. You can have them write down activities they would want to do and pick from a list or just make an effort to check in on each child separately.

Empathize and Validate: Acknowledge their feelings and express how you are handling the change. Try saying something like: “I know, it can be confusing because it’s exciting to be back in school but also hard to get back into a routine. It’s been a tough transition for all of us” Demonstrate that you are taking time to take care of yourself and use your own positive coping skills.

Some behaviors can just be a form of expression or a shedding of negative feelings, however, some can be cause for concern. If you notice any truly negative self-statements, that a child is completely shutting down, extreme changes in personality or self-harm of any kind, these are situations where you would want to seek out outside support.

Again, this time has not been easy for any of us. We continue to have to shift and change and just want to not have to worry about a pandemic anymore. Try to go easy on your kids (and yourself).


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