Nothing about 2021 was ‘normal’, especially when it comes to schools. Many brick and mortar schools were forced to close and convert to virtual learning while others modified their classroom experiences. Now, as the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, many school districts are reopening – some after more than a year of virtual learning. How can we help students transition back to in-person learning?



Like most change, the best way to help a child transition is to prepare them. There are two critical parts to this preparation. First, have discussions with your child about how school will look different (e.g., desks far apart from each other, teachers maintaining physical distance, the possibility of staying in the classroom for lunch). Discuss how teachers’ and other students’ interactions may appear different and how their actions and routines may need to be altered. Role-playing may help younger children understand better. Second, find out how your child is feeling and communicate that what they may be feeling is normal. Separation anxiety and new stresses may result in behavior changes in a child.


Build on Past Experience

Conversations about returning to school can start with a discussion about what it was like last year. Begin by remembering their daily routine from drop off to pick-up – what door did they use, who did they see? Then talk about what might change and how the student should act regarding the change. For example, if the student usually enters through one door, but the school has changed this procedure, discuss the location of the ‘new’ door and how they will get to their classroom from this new entrance. Reassure the child that teachers and others will be there to help them find their way.

Even with the best of planning, some protocols may need to be changed after the first day. Explain this to children so they are prepared. Discuss what might be the same and what might change. Life is uncertain and though children prefer routines, they need to be adaptable. Explain that uncertainty and changing protocols are nothing to fear and part of everyday life. The weather is a perfect example of how uncertainty impacts our lives on a daily basis. Children must learn to accept the uncertainty in life, and this is just another experience to help them.

Children might experience changes in these general areas: the environment, their routines, and social interactions. Environmental changes range from school entrances to classrooms. Some schools may limit entrance to certain doors as a means of crowd control. The classrooms may look different with desk being further apart and possibly barriers between desks to keep students distanced. Routines may change. If students were used to changing classrooms for different subjects, they may find that students and teachers are now divided into distinct groups that stay together throughout an entire school day.  Certain activities like labs and physical education classes may be different and limited to students in specific groupings.


New Experiences

Children may also be required to wear masks and social distance from their friends and classmates. Hugs and fist bumps may be replaced with elbow bumps or no contact at all.

Discovering what your child is feeling is often more challenging. All children are unique, and while some may readily discuss their feelings while others tend to keep things to themselves. If you ask a child “how are you feeling?” and you do not get a response, try a different tactic. With younger children, try role-playing. Take turns being the teacher and the student and when you are the student, express feelings. You might say how happy you are to be back in school with your teacher and friends and follow up with your sadness at missing the family pet. This might help the child express their feelings when it is their turn to be the student. With older children, don’t just ‘dive in’ and start with “How are you feeling about returning to school?”, first ask how their day was and what was different. Then ask how they felt about the differences.

Children who are heading back to the classroom are facing unusual challenges that may result in additional stress and anxiety. Many of them have been at home and secluded with their family for many months. The ‘real’ world has become a scary place where they have to wear masks and stay away from people. The dramatic change from this isolation mentality to reentering the social world is huge.

While some children will relish the return to school after being away from their friends for so long, others may be reluctant. Children who had comfortably adjusted to being in school before the pandemic may find it stressful now. Children who have long outgrown separation anxiety may revert. After being with their families 24/7, they may not want to return to school and be away from the security of the family. Children may also experience added stress about social distancing and getting sick from others.


Be Confident and Calm

Parents and caregivers can help students adjust by reassuring the children that it is safe to safe to be away from them. They should also encourage children to follow the new protocols and explain how these are in place to protect everyone. If a child is clingy or fearful, validate their feelings and let them express them. However, be careful not to ‘feed the fire’. For example, if a child says, “I don’t want to go to school because I miss you”, respond with “I miss you too, but I’m so proud of you for going to school and doing your best”.

Make sure to remain calm when talking with children about school. You do not want to feed their anxiety. If children appear anxious or stressed, set aside one on one time to play a game or read together. If you are calm, they will be reassured that everything will be ok. It is important for families to model healthy behaviors regarding change. Even if your child returns to in-person learning, it is important to prepare for the possibility of a return to virtual learning if school closes or if your child becomes exposed to COVID-19 and needs to stay home.

Hopefully, schools will continue to reopen without incident and all students can return to safe and effective in-person learning. Until then, parents and caregivers must help children work through and accept change and uncertainty.


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