It’s hard to imagine that a year later we would find ourselves going into another school year with the pandemic looming in the background. As our nation continues to struggle to find a common narrative, preparing for this school year may feel even more anxious and uncertain than last year. One thing is certain: the discomfort of parents, teachers, and administrators will trickle down and be felt by our children. Leaning into the structure of the annual “back to school” transition may be very helpful given these circumstances.
The return to school often provides benefits to both children and parents. For many children, school allows them to interact with friends and develop a sense of self outside the home. Both of these experiences are important for reaching developmental milestones. For many parents, the return to school allows them some breathing room and a regular routine to follow. This may be especially helpful given how exhausting it has been to parent during the pandemic.
With so much to think about, there is no simple answer nor anyone who has all the answers. Every family has different needs and demands. Depending on your particular situation, some solutions will be more or less relevant to you and your family. That being said, there are definitely some tried and true options for parents as they navigate another school year impacted by COVID.
Develop a Routine as a Family
The human experience is filled with uncertainty. Anytime we can create some sense of reliability, we increase our chances of success. Discipline and structure free us from some of the uncertainty in our lives, allowing us to thrive. Knowing what to expect can fight back the lingering uncertainty we have been living through for 18 months. Reclaiming some solid ground will be crucial for maintaining some sense of normalcy and security in a scary world.
Back to school is a unique time in the year because it creates an opportunity to set a new routine with less work. There will be natural changes based on the school day and we can build on these to optimize our routines. Research suggests that it’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (yes, weekends included). This helps the body develop a solid rhythm, supporting healthy mood regulation and biological functioning. Parents can adjust this based on age and specific needs. Some other suggestions to help empower your children:
- Create a morning routine (wake up, get dressed/brush teeth, eat, prepare lunch/snack, get backpack ready). This can also be adjusted based on age; for little ones it’s helpful for them to participate or watch, even if they can’t help us make their lunch for instance
- Ask them about the day ahead and help them mentally prepare for any tests, quizzes, or stressful situations
- Ask them if they have their materials ready or need anything for the day. Allow them to take responsibility. If they forget something, let them self-correct by asking what they might do differently next time.
Talk to Them, Listen, and Take an Interest in Their Lives
We tend to overcomplicate parenting. At the end of the day, children just want to know that we care about them, and they’re a meaningful part of our lives. Children often connect by sharing stories or little anecdotes about the day. That obscure little interaction with a teacher or peer may seem minor to us but could mean a great deal to them. After school, be sure to ask them how their day was and show interest in what they’re saying. That could mean asking follow-up questions or mirroring their excitement about a particular experience. That could also mean being a sounding board for challenges they’re going through. Instead of jumping in with solutions, advice, or critiques, try asking questions to guide them to an answer.
Set Realistic Expectations
Balancing work, school, family and personal life can feel like an uphill battle. Parents are faced with a never-ending list of equally important responsibilities. We make tough decisions every day, often needing to prioritize one thing while putting another one on the back burner. Getting the balance right requires flexibility; making adjustments where needed and sticking with what works. This dance can be seen as an artform; when done well it produces a symphony, when done poorly it produces competing loud noises.
First priority is to be merciful and compassionate with yourself and others. We’re all human and none of us gets it right all the time. You have permission to slow down and take your time making changes. Living your way to a more balanced life is more realistic than making changes all at once. Secondly, Monitor and check in with your inner world. If you notice an increased level of stress or tension, it could be time to adjust expectations and take something off your plate or rearrange how you meet the expectation. Feel free to stop, reflect, and rearrange as much as needed until you find what works.
Lead by Example
Children take all their cues from us; they are constantly watching and mirroring our process. This is built into their DNA; a form of neurological software that organically supports development. The best place to start is with the present moment. Whatever you are going through as a family may need to be accepted and verbalized. We are all still grieving the mounting losses that have occurred since life stopped being “normal”. All the while, every family has continued to grapple with life’s usual challenges. Acknowledging our lived experience allows us to be more present with our children and loved ones. This phenomenon is known as the acceptance paradox. Accepting something is the first step to changing it.
As parents, we may need the routine reset just as much as our children. Parents often struggle to take care of themselves. We can become so focused on caring for others that we forget about ourselves. A few of the most important areas of self-care are sleep, nutrition, exercise, hydration, prayer, and a healthy media diet. It’s so easy to get burnt out as a parent; focusing on making small improvements to self-care can go a long way. You can think about it as a way to optimize your capacity as a parent which can prevent future struggle. You might need to move your workout to a new time, sneak away for 10 minutes of prayer, fill your water bottle up the night before, or grab some healthy frozen meals for those afternoon cravings. Do your best and remember that you’re important too!
– Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Jonathan Dixon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia who has offered mental health services at Alpha Omega Clinic’s Fairfax office since 2013. He is an active member of the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy. He also seeks to inspire healing and wholeness through reflections on Instagram @deepspeakstodeep.