How to discuss changes at school during the pandemic

By MICHAEL AURIT
Foothills Focus Contributor

Parents are grappling with balancing their children’s strong emotions and their own mixed feelings about how to handle the upcoming school year. Initial optimism that summer’s end would bring back normalcy and a sense of security has devolved into a pressing need to make decisions about how children will return to school in the midst of Arizona’s intensifying pandemic.

Families are coping with so much uncertainty about what school will look like in August and September and how it may change over time. Thankfully, children are becoming accustomed to online education, but most look forward to seeing their friends back in the classroom.

Even within families, children may overhear some disagreement between parents about how to proceed. One parent may prioritize physical safety for their children, family and community, while the other parent’s primary concern may be how a lack of social interaction is negatively affecting their children’s mental health.

Right now, parents have an opportunity to do more than just get children through this crisis. We can communicate with our kids in a way that supports their emotional needs and best prepares them for how school may be different when they return. How you talk with your children will largely depend upon each child’s age and development. By following some general guidelines, you can thoughtfully prepare to talk with children of any age.

Get prepared

Parents should get on the same page and demonstrate a united front when talking with children about the new school year. Talking with children together, at the same time, is preferable.

Consider what you want to convey. Start by asking some questions about how they feel about going back to school. Family mediation teaches us that asking broad, open-ended questions can be a powerful tool to reveal important information about how someone is coping. You might ask:

“Are you excited for school to start again?”

“What are you looking forward to the most?”

“Is there anything you hope will be different?”

“What kind of changes do you think there will be?”

Validate feelings, normalize and allow venting

In this abnormal circumstance, parents are wise to prepare to help their children process some potential strong and negative emotions. As parents, sometimes we want to jump in and “fix it” by immediately responding with “it will be OK” or “it will all be fine.” We forget how children, as much as adults, can benefit greatly just by feeling heard and having their feelings validated. If your child expresses anxiety, you might say:

“I can understand how you would feel like that. From what I am hearing, most kids are a bit worried about what school will be like in the fall.  It’s totally normal to feel worried when there is so much, we just don’t know yet.”

“You are not alone, I have had some of those same feelings. Do you think it might help if we talk a little bit about it? What else is on your mind?”

Engage them

Once you have acknowledged their feelings, you can begin to discuss the likely changes to school in the fall. You can keep them engaged by introducing these changes in the form of a question. You might ask:

“Do you have any ideas about how everyone can go back to school and stay safe?”

“Do you think it is a good idea to have everyone wear face masks?” and/or;

“How do you think they could avoid big gatherings?”

Presenting an idea as a question is a way to guide your children to consider options. In mediation, people are able to thoughtfully solve problems when they can consider new ideas in a non-defensive manner.

The same can be true for you and your children as you navigate back to school issues.

Positively reinforce them

We can build our children’s self-esteem by praising how well they adjusted to virtual classes. You might say:

“Well, I know you are going to be just fine, just look at how you handled learning from home. You jumped in and figured it out in no time. You even helped your friends.”

“I’m really proud of how you have handled all of this, you are one amazing kid!”

Letting your kids know that you believe in their ability to adjust and adapt gives them the confidence they need adapt to and overcome challenges.

Get real with them

Have an open and honest dialogue about possible changes, should kids return to school in the fall. Some potential pandemic-related changes are:

• Wearing masks at school.

• Eating lunch in the classroom.

• Rotating in-person and virtual school days.

• Staggered start times.

• Temperature monitoring.

• Social distancing markers ex. Marked positions indicating where to stand while in line.

• Clear plastic barriers.

• More outdoor time.

• Less or no contact sports.

• Handwashing stations.

• Classes in temporary locations or outdoors.

• Smaller classes.

Most importantly, let your kids know that you are in this together. If you or your child are struggling, professional counselors and therapists are available online. Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings in an open and honest way, without judgment, and you will create a supportive, optimistic and solution-focused environment, in spite of the pandemic.