As kids head back to school, the pandemic fuels challenges. But there are ways to help make the transition go smoothly.

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Anyone who’s tried to improve their fitness knows how hard it can be to get back into an exercise groove. Now imagine how challenging it is now for U.S. kids to go from nearly 500 days in quarantine to in-person learning and extracurriculars.

It’s not just a physical ramping up they will have to endeavor. Some may need academic catching up and mental health restoration.

Still, as with all obstacles in history, the youth can — and will — overcome with the help of parents, community leaders, and educators. Here’s how.

After a school year like no other in 2020, students are heading back to in-person learning with a lot of uncertainties.

“It is important to recognize that for some children, they have not only fallen behind in terms of academics but also in terms of social and emotional development,” says Dr. Willough Jenkins, inpatient medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry services and clinical lead of the pediatric consultation-liaison service at Rady Children’s Hospital.

“There is concern about how they might fit in and how their peers might react to the changes this past year and a half,” she says.

Jenkins adds that pandemic-specific fears children might have include worries about whether in-person classes and new schedules will stay in place and concerns about whether themselves, friends, or loved ones will get sick.

As children navigate the new school year, there are things schools and parents can do to help support them.

Schools can set the tone for how students feel while learning, whether in person or virtually.

In-person learning

Getting back into the classroom may feel awkward for some kids with all the COVID-19 safety protocols. Here are a few ways schools can assist.

Help kids feel safe

“Ensuring that students can interact (safely of course) and having open conversations about their policies is encouraged,” Jenkins says.

Explaining to students all the policies that have been put in place, such as physical distancing, mask wearing, and extra cleaning, may put them at ease — or spark anxiety.

Allowing students to ask questions and providing answers in digestible bites can help ease any concerns.

But how?

You might try creating portmanteaus, rhymes, or memorable phrases for kids to remember the new rules.

Nourish social and emotional connection

Before hitting the books, actively listening to students about how they’re feeling can help make them comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn.

“Most educators I’ve spoken with have shared that they understand children have much more on their plates than in the past and expectations will be adjusted. Returning to school needs to equally prioritize the academic and social/emotional catch-up,” Jenkins says.

Provide extra support to struggling students

The pandemic may have affected children in various ways at home, from a caregiver losing their job to a death in the family.

“Some children are returning to school having lost loved ones to the pandemic and have the added anxiety of explaining their loss. And, particularly for younger children, a transition from significant time with family and caregivers to significant time without them has the potential to amplify separation anxiety,” Jenkins says.

Although the pandemic weighs heavily on many students, she points out that if a child is facing stress or anxiety, try not to automatically assume it’s COVID-19-related.

“In addition to the pandemic, there has been focus on social justice issues, racism, and politics,” Jenkins adds.

Connecting students with a school counselor, social worker, or psychologist can be a first step in getting them the help they need.

Here’s help in choosing the right therapist for your child.

Virtual learning

Some families may choose to keep their kid learning remotely. In addition to the tips provided for in-person learning, the pointers below may also help.

Offer flexibility and understanding

Learning from home can bring about various challenges, such as lack of a designated workspace, internet connection issues, and parents toggling between other siblings who are also at home, just to name a few.

You can give your student(s) more mental and emotional room as they work around these issues. Things like maintaining flexibility with deadlines can go a long way, too, in helping your students know they’re validated and supported.

Set boundaries

Giving students some leeway doesn’t mean they’re exempt from following rules and instructions, though.

Reinforcing the need to complete assignments, actively participate (whether via chat or onscreen), and pay undivided attention during class time (turning off video games, smartphones, and more), will help fortify their success.

Stay connected

While learning remotely can feel isolating sometimes, ensuring that students know their teachers, principals, and support staff are available to talk over video can help keep them engaged and feel like part of a classroom.

For students who seem disengaged, school staff may consider setting up times to talk on a regular basis.

As a caregiver, getting your child ready for the start of the school year may ignite a little bit of excitement and some anxiety. To help them prepare for school, consider taking time for the following:

Unpack school safety protocols

While every school district has different COVID-19 safety protocols in place, understanding your school’s requirements and explaining them to your kid can help them feel at ease.

“Some children will be more aware of [COVID-19] risk, and it’s important to have honest and accurate conversations about the methods that will be put in place at their school to keep them safe… Reviewing the benefits of masking, hygiene, and social distancing will be important as a lot of us have been more relaxed in the past few months,” Jenkins says.

Help them stay prepared

Ensuring your child has everything they need for the school day in terms of supplies, homework, and lunch can let them focus on learning once they get to school.

If your child has certain needs (like ADHD or specific learning disorder support), talking with their teachers and support staff ahead of school can help calm concerns you might have about the start of the school year.

Remember also there’s a difference between assisting and enabling. As you support your child, it’s important for their development that you don’t take on everything for them. You likely have return-to-office or pandemic protocol changes at your own job or within your community commitments as well to manage.

Help them help themselves

Oftentimes, we want to be the “fixer,” because it’s just easier or faster. To build resilience in your kid and raise them to look to problem-solve at each age, you might want to try this simple phrase that shifts the ownership of being solution-oriented: “What will you do?”

For example: “I’m sorry to hear that happened, that sounds frustrating. What will you do to fix it?”

Create a routine

Keeping a consistent bedtime, wake-up time, homework time, and dinnertime can set expectations for kids.

“[Routine] and schedule allow for some predictability in uncertain times,” Jenkins says.

Ensure they get sleep

Last school year, many kids got to sleep in because they didn’t have to commute to school. This is even more the case as they come out of summer break.

However, Jenkins says during times of change, it’s crucial children get enough sleep.

According to a 2020 study, a large proportion of adolescents across the world do not get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night.

Because sleep is needed for learning and memory, the study reports that a lack of sleep is associated with poorer academic outcomes.

Instill catch-up times

Despite busy schedules, prioritizing family time, such as dinner together, serves as an opportunity for checking in with your kids.

Asking your kids how their day went and sharing how yours went is a good way to encourage open communication.

But how?

You might try this simple conversation starter with the family: “Best part, worst part.”

Here’s how it works: Each family member shares the best part of their day and the worst part of their day. It helps to allow each person a welcoming space to brag on good news, vent healthily on frustrating news, and also helps the listeners practice “sitting with” others’ discomfort (a component of emotional intelligence, or EQ).

It can also help detect patterns and symptoms if the “worst parts” continue to outweigh the “best parts.”

Teach emotional coping skills

Teaching and reinforcing emotional coping skills can benefit kids and parents.

Jenkins recommends using apps like Headspace for Kids or Moshi, which offer guided sessions.

Encourage extracurricular activities

While school is the primary focus, encouraging your child to balance academics with exercise, music, or other activities they enjoy outside of school can help them get a break from an unusual school environment.

“It is always helpful to ensure children have multiple areas where they can thrive so that all the pressure isn’t placed in one environment,” Jenkins says. “[Also], encourage children to socialize with their friends outside.”

Don’t shut the door on remote learning

As new information regarding COVID-19 and virus variants emerge, Jenkins says it’s OK to stay open in terms of how your child receives an education.

“If your family’s risk for COVID-19 is higher, or your child has been thriving in online school, do remember there are options for education, including continuing online schooling,” she says.

Some children might feel comfortable checking in with their teacher before they reach progress report time. If so, it can teach them independence and show initiative. However, other kids will benefit from having their caregivers help facilitate a check-in with teachers.

“Most teachers have an email or online messaging system, so sending a quick message asking how things are going would be surely welcomed,” Jenkins says.

But how?

Jenkins recommends sending a note to a teacher along the lines of:

“Just wanted to check in on how my child is doing so far this year. Any feedback is welcomed regarding how they’re doing in your class, both with their coursework and their classmates. Thank you!”

If you’re worried your child may be struggling with emotional or mental health issues, reaching out to a school counselor, social worker, or psychologist is a good step. A pediatrician, if you have one, can also be a good source.

As your child transitions back to school this year, whether in-person or remotely, they may face challenges brought on by the pandemic. Schools and parents can help make the process easier.

Know that they — and you — are not alone as we all figure this out.

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