Helping Children Navigate the New School Year

The coming school year is shaping up to better resemble pre-pandemic education, with Bay Area schools expected to offer full-time, in-person classes after more than a year of distance learning, hybrid schedules, shorter school days and other disruptions caused by COVID-19.

But it may be a stretch to say that everything will go back to “normal.” Kids under age 12 are unlikely to be vaccinated before the start of the school year, meaning masks and other safety precautions may still be in the picture this fall. In addition, the typical new school year jitters and transition stress may be exacerbated for children who had little or no in-person schooling or remain concerned about COVID.

Bay Area Parent spoke with Rebecca London, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and mother of two college students, about how parents can help their children prepare for the new school year. London, whose research involves education and children’s wellbeing, is the author of Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime for All Children in School (Harvard Education Press, 2019).

How has the pandemic impacted kids?

Adolescents, as they develop their social and emotional selves, are drawn toward peers and peer connections, and that becomes really important in the development of their happiness and interests. Imagine you’re stuck at home with family when your full drive is to connect with your peers. … For younger kids who are still developing those social-emotional skills, being at school, playing, having recess, having connections with friends, these opportunities to connect are how they learn important skills.

All those opportunities have been stunted. Many kids have experienced immeasurable traumas and challenges during this time, everything from losing a family member to food insecurity, economic insecurity, parents losing jobs. … Children who are Black and brown had much higher rates of experiencing those adverse outcomes, and that is added on to the racial trauma that happened and the reckoning that we’re having now.

These are big moments, and we have to appreciate how our children understand them. Just because we’ve opened up our schools and let them come back doesn’t mean they’re healed.

With more of society having opened back up, should we expect children to just go “back to normal”?

We should expect that they’re going to go back to normal and can signal to them that it’s safe. But we need to recognize that they may not be able to jump right back in. Some kids will be able to, but some kids are going to find that hard. Isolation may have been easier to them because they could retreat into their computer games or not be on display. The first time I went to dinner with friend, I didn’t know if I’d have enough to talk about. Imagine going into a class with 30 students. That’s a lot of social interaction at once.

What can we do to help them readjust and prepare for a new school year?

One of the biggest lessons schools and parents can learn at this moment is to try and think about ways to ease children’s feelings about what they lost. All this focus on learning loss is really hard because it puts pressure on children to feel like they have to make up for lost time. If we push and say, “It’s time to make up for third grade,” … that’s a lot of stress.

One of the best things schools can do is give a little space for reconnection. A lot of schools were not open in full. What can they do to build school climate? To help students connect and reconnect, kind of revisit the school motto or core values, the things that make our school unique and bring us together – coming together for healing, creating community, supporting each other, having empathy.

I’m not saying academics don’t matter. Academics matter so much, but you can’t get to them until you’ve done the other stuff first because kids won’t be ready for it.

The first part of facilitating healing is to acknowledge that trauma occurred. Everything is not just fine, even if you didn’t experience illness or job loss. … My daughter’s freshman year was not a (typical college) freshman year. (Her senior year of high school), she didn’t get a prom and her final softball season. She didn’t get to walk across the stage as valedictorian. I don’t want to sweep that under the rug. It’s important to acknowledge that you lost those important moments and you’re not going to get them back.

One way to heal is to think of others who have bigger problems and work to serve them. … What can you do for your community?

If you are a child who has really experienced trauma, the healing is about connection with peers, connecting with adults who they know who care about them. For some of our most vulnerable children, school plays a huge role in keeping them safe.

What about learning loss?

I think everybody is concerned about everything we missed in this pandemic, and learning in school for kids is one of them. If we could take a broad view of schooling and think about it as something more than the content and curriculum you’re supposed to cover, … one of the things we’d realize is that living in a pandemic is a learning experience. It may not be the learning you expected, but I would not minimize what kids have learned – they’ve learned a lot of things.

I can’t tell you how schools will make up for that time. They’re not in it alone. We’re going to have whole crop of kids at every age level who missed some part of this academic year.

I recommend journaling, … connections with nature, any calming, meditative or get-your-energy-out physical activity, volunteering. There’s a lot of talk about gratitude, and how gratitude and service are the keys to a happy life, … sort of thanking the world for the fact that we survived.

Connection with peers is really important. To the extent parents can help their kids connect with peers this summer, it will make that transition to school easier. …

It doesn’t matter who the connection is with but that everyone has someone who cares about them and notices them.

Janine DeFao is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent.