From the Armchair: Tips for school return from a Child Psychologist

How can pediatricians and parents help ease their children’s return to school?  The following are some suggestions and ideas that may assist the reentry process.

1.Parents can complete and share a form for the teacher that helps them communicate what they are seeing at home. You can make these available in your office if possible. 

2. In anticipation of school, tell parents to back up their child or teen’s bedtime and wake-up times.  Ideally, this process should be begun at least a week before the child is required to be at school. Each night,  move their bedtime and awakening time back by 15 minutes.  This can help the child adjust to the schedule in-person school may require.  Even with a better bedtime and wake-up time, it is normal for the child to be tired the first several weeks as a result of the changes demanded by a school day. Also, good sleep hygiene would include turning off all screens an hour before bed, having a set ritual (no wild play at least an hour before bed, taking a bath or shower, brushing teeth, reading a book, hugs, etc.).  

3. Tell parents that anxious children may use bedtime to talk about the things that upset them. Try to limit any conversations about upsetting things to earlier in the day so the night ritual is soothing.  Anxious children can be prompted to talk about any concerns or things worrying them before dinner, or, it can be suggested to older children to journal about troubling things in a journal and then the journal goes away in a drawer in another room.

4.  Recommend a calm morning routine.  For some children, laying out what they will wear will cut down on trying to make decisions when tired.  Try not to fight about what the child eats for breakfast but try to be sure your youngster has a protein and a carb for breakfast, even if they say they are not hungry.  Shakes and protein bars may need to suffice at the beginning.

5.  If feasible, recommend parents physically introduce their child to the school. Discuss the positive experiences they will have.  If possible, parents can help youngsters find their classrooms, re-visit the lunch room, , and perhaps visit their classes from last year.  Discuss with older children what they feel may be challenging during their first weeks back. With younger children, depending on their verbal abilities, parents can talk with them about their fears, or have a “stand-in” with a stuffed animal, asking what their stuffed animal might feel if they had to go back to school.  Parents can also role-play with your child situations they are worried about, with different options for managing these situations.

6. Tell parents to try to have your child share at the end of each day 2 good things that happened.  Ask if they had any “hard things” happen.

7. Recommend that parents give their child “down time” at the end of the day.  Encourage children to exercise by dancing to a song, taking a walk, or riding their bike. Wean children from screens after a few weeks of school, as during COVID, this may have been a major source of socialization and entertainment.  Try to develop a contract with older children on when and how much screen time they can have.  Limit exposure to news shows and conversations about COVID as these may increase your youngster’s concerns.

8.  Recommend that parents use positive discipline tools; they should try to ignore behaviors if they are simply mildly annoying and try to focus changing or modifying only one behavior at a time. Parents should try to find things to do with their children that are pleasurable and that they  enjoy to nourish their relationships.   

 9. Encourage parents to take care of themselves as role models for their children. Talk about what parents can do to cope with stress and what helps them feel better when they are worried or upset.  These have been extraordinary times for everyone and it will take time and work to find our “new normal. “ Encourage parents to have empathy for themselves, their family members, and others.  Parents need to “put their oxygen masks on first” as they cannot help others when they have no reserves for themselves.   

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