The beginning of a school year is full of excitement, trepidation, nerves, and anticipation. And that’s just for us parents! Ha! But, bad jokes aside, parents are experts at preparing their children for new experiences. We do it every day, and when they are little, all day! But, this year has sent us for a bit of a loop! The normal first day of school jitters will likely be accompanied by some new concerns that we have not encountered before. Even as experts we might like to have a little help.
With help for the expert in mind, here is a little conversational GPS. A road map to help navigate talking with your kiddo about school through the eyes of a child life specialist. A Child Life Specialist provides support using child-friendly preparation and developing play-based coping techniques for children, most often in the hospital setting. While its true, preparing for an appendectomy isn’t quite the same as preparing for your first day of 3rd grade, the techniques can be employed for both. Hopefully leaving you and your child feeling empowered to face any challenge ahead!
Step 1) Set the stage: Why are we here? At the hospital, I always found this a helpful tool to get the conversation rolling. The answer might be “I fell off my bike and arm is really hurt,” “My mom thinks I have allergies because my nose is always snotty,” etc. In preparing to go back to school, it also can help to talk about, “why are we here?”
Mama or Dad: “Hey sweetie! I want to talk with you a little about school starting soon. Do you remember what we talked about, why school was canceled after spring break?”
Kiddo: “Because…the coronavirus is going around?”
Mama or Dad: “Right, that’s it exactly. When we all first learned about the coronavirus/COVID-19, the experts weren’t sure how exactly it was spreading so fast and the best ways to stay safe. So, the smartest thing we could all do was stay home. Now we are learning, that this virus won’t go entirely away for a long time. This means we have to find ways to go back into the world more safely, while, still making sure we still only go out into the world for what we need. In our family, we have decided one of the things we need is for you to go to school. Since everyone wants you and your teachers and friends to be as safe as possible in school, things are going to look and feel differently than they did before spring break. Now we know more about COVID-19/the coronavirus than we did before. Which means we can be smarter and safer.”
Step 2: Ask Questions: I love this the most because as parents I think we sometimes feel responsible for having all the answers and that, my friends, is a heavy burden to bear! If we start by finding out: what our kids already know and what they most want to know, we often find that knowing the “right answers,” is simpler than we imagined!
Mama: What do you think will be different about school when you get back?
Kiddo: I bet we will have to wash our hands a lot!
Mama: That’s right, I bet you will! That’s good thinking. What else?
Kiddo: Will my teacher be wearing a mask like you do when you go out?
Mama: Yep! Right again! What questions do you have about what things will look different?
Kiddo: Will we still have recess?
Mama: I called the school to find out, they said yes, but that you would only go out one grade at a time. So you won’t see the older or the younger kids on the playground. Just the other kids in first grade. Great question. Anything else?
Kiddo: No, can I go play?
Mama: Sure! But listen real quick, I am here if you have any more questions. A few nights before school, I do want to tell you the 4 new things I think you need to know. Ok?
Kiddo: Ok! Bye!
Now, of course, some kids will have 100 plus questions, others won’t have any, and most will probably fall somewhere in between. I like to give kids options for how much information is provided. For instance, I might say “Do you want me to tell you EVERYTHING that I know that will be new about school, just the things you have questions about, or just the 5 things that I think will look and feel the newest?”
Kids and adults tend to fall into two camps when it comes to coping: active/productive copers who like to learn about every detail beforehand and avoidant copers who prefer to focus on something else to get through the changes. (Neither way is better than the other! But for active/productive copers it might help to focus on the biggest changes, and for avoidant copers, after warning them about the most vital things (i.e. you will have to wear a mask at school or your best friend decided to do home school) it might be most helpful to focus on things that will be the same (i.e. you will still get to play your violin with Mr. Martin, I will still pick you up every day, you can still sit with your buddies at lunch, you just might have to have a few open seats between you.)
Now that you have taken steps to begin your school conversation, here are some tips keeping the dialogue going.
Focus on Sensory Experience & Sequence of Events
Another option to help focus our attention in a world of changes at school is to share what will look and feel (and sound, smell, taste) different from before. Call or email a professional in your child’s school so that you can be aware of some of these changes. Remember, kiddos don’t have to know everything that will be different beforehand, they are resilient, and they adapt every day. Here is a list of examples for you to consider:
Sight: The chairs in the classroom might be further apart than before or there might be clear plastic barriers in between desks.
Sound: At first, the teacher might sound a little different while wearing his mask, and it could take some getting used to.
Smell: Classrooms might smell more like cleaners, soap, and hand sanitizer.
Feel: It might seem strange not to sit right beside friends anymore or not to hug your teachers. You can find other ways to show them you care and to see how they are feeling. (Parents, you can help your kiddos write a note to their teacher or come up with as a family a teacher hug alternative!)
A sequence of Events:
We all know that most kids (and even grown-ups!) thrive on schedules and love having a sense of knowing what to expect. Ask your school if there are any big changes in routine, and if you feel like it will be helpful, walk your child through the new sequence of events. For example, “first we will wait in the drop-off line, then Ms. Lupe will take your temperature, then mama will help you get out of the car and get your backpack and you can go into school. Mama won’t be able to come inside, but she will give you a big hug with her mask on before you go in.”
Use honest non-threatening language
As we have all experienced how we say something can be more important than what we say. Our future selves will either curse us or thank us for what we tell our children now. Truthfulness with our children can help us achieve the desired outcome. When it came to “shots” or “pokes” at the clinic, children often asked me, “Will it hurt?” An honest non-threatening response might be, “It will feel like a little pinch.” Then for perspective, “Does a pinch hurt for a LONG LONG LONG LONG time or just a short time?”
When it comes to school try to think of the kindest or softest words that you can use to still convey the honest to goodness truth:
Will I have to wear my mask all day?! "You will have to wear your mask from the time you get to school until your first outdoor recess at 10:30. That’s about as much time as it takes to watch 4 episodes of Odd Squad."
Word alternatives: - Instead of these words, Try these words:
Different - New
Protocol - Safety guideline
Socially distance - Give each other space for safety
The “How Old Are You” Trick:
When deciding how much and when to talk about preparing for newness at school it can be helpful to differ to the “how old are you” trick. For example, for a 5-year-old, starting about 5 days before school, focusing on no more than 5 key details at a time is usually just about right.
And last but not least…Don’t worry about knowing everything or saying everything perfectly.
If you’re worried that you might say the wrong thing and accidentally make your child upset, let me ease your mind. You will AND you won’t. You might say something that causes your child to react in disappointment or anxiety. But that is only because your child is likely already experiencing disappointment or anxiety as related to the circumstances. You didn’t manifest those feelings in your child from just this conversation. You simply opened a door to them or helped identify some triggers for those feelings. There is no perfect script to deal with these new issues in our lives and that is good news. That means there is no one right way to have these conversations. The only thing we know is that we must provide space to talk about what is new at school and give our children the audience they need.
So please, don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to every question, or the perfect way to explain something. By being honest and deliberate you are teaching your child problem-solving skills, that it is ok to ask questions, and that you can all navigate changes together. Because this crazy wild family life of ours… it was made a masterpiece.
Child Life Specialist &
ED for A Children's House For The Soul