Earlier this month I listened to a panel discussion hosted by Newton Covenant Church called “First Day Jitters: An Expert Panel on Navigating “Back to School” in a Pandemic.” I opened up the Zoom call with curiosity and an urgent need for hope. I didn’t have any particular questions, other than how the heck are we going to do school this fall? On the cusp of the new year with so much uncertainty still ahead (would my four remote learners stay at home or would they return to school at some point?), I was searching for guidelines, parameters, any kind of expert tidbit of advice to help me navigate our new and ever-shifting reality. And yet, I was also full of doubt and skepticism that some stranger over the screen could offer me anything I truly needed.
I’ll spare you the suspense and say that by the end, I was so glad I had listened in. Initial scrolling illustrations depicting our outstanding circumstances conveyed comic relief, and the calm and reassuring demeanor from all of the panelists provided a sense of peace and gave me a place of rest for an hour or so. I can’t replicate either of those components of the evening here for you, so I’ll jump to the third and meatiest takeaway -- their expert advice and perspectives.
How traumatic is the loss of school for my child?
The clinical psychologist on the panel was asked whether the pandemic and loss of in-person schooling qualify as traumatic events for our kids. The professional replied that for most kids, the abrupt stopping of school was a stressful life event, not a trauma. In this case, the trauma kids might experience might come not from COVID but from the fallout of COVID, such as changes to family structure, death, loss of jobs or changes in socioeconomic status.
Bottom line, she wanted us to remember that kids are resilient by nature. They are always growing and adapting, so they are better suited to dealing with these changes than adults are! Besides that though, there are many things we can do to buffer this experience for kids. We can bolster their resiliency by being responsive, supportive and caring.
As they return to school, kids will have different perspectives based on their prior experience. Older kids, for example, may be more disappointed by the changes because they have had more time to experience school as it was before. What we all have in common though, of course, is the unknown. The psychologist said it’s helpful if we name the unknown for the kids, as in “We don’t know who your teacher will be, but we will know by the first day of school.” She recommended talking through the logistics, such as wearing masks, taking mask breaks and eating lunch in the classroom (if the kids are in person).
When asked how concerned we should be about long term effects on our kids, she honestly answered that we don’t know yet. Still, she encouraged us not to “borrow the trouble of tomorrow.” We as a society will figure out what happens down the road.
Each interview concluded with the panelist offering a piece of advice for parents. The psychologist offered these words:
As humans, we influence each others’ moods. If we can come into a conversation with hope, the kids will too. But, we don’t have to do it perfectly. We can always repair, and doing this teaches kids to talk through their own problems and mistakes.
Is my child at risk of falling behind?
Following the interview with the clinical psychologist, the superintendent on the panel was asked whether the kids have experienced education loss. Yes, he said frankly, but then he went on to remind everyone that this pandemic is global. He encouraged us to remember that everyone is at a disadvantage right now. Education is going to be disjointed for a while. He described education from March through June as crisis learning and expected remediation for at least part of this school year.
Then he shifted gears and encouraged us to appreciate the different learning opportunities of these past months that families engaged in -- opportunities to come together, learn new hobbies, and learn to cook, for example. As we look ahead to new learning structures, he offered perspective on how some of these changes could be a good thing. Pre-recorded videos, for example, could give a child who is struggling with a concept a chance to hear a lesson several times. He stressed that parents should play a supporting role and not assume the position of main educator.
As his concluding advice, the superintendent offered these words:
Remember that school isn’t just about academics. Demonstrate curiosity for your kids and ask yourself how you can learn alongside them and bond with them during this time.
How do I distinguish between regular worry and anxiety in my child?
The pastor’s third panel question about how to detect and understand anxiety in kids was directed to a pediatric neuropsychologist. Anxiety disorder, in her definition, involves a prolonged tendency toward anxiety over a timeframe of two to three weeks that interferes with functioning in daily life. She pointed out that a child is less likely to be able to verbalize cognitive changes. A parent is more likely to see irritability, restlessness, the child’s mind “going blank” under stressful circumstances, and sleep disturbances.
For parents like me who witness irritability on a daily basis, the expert encouraged us to remember that worry and apprehension are appropriate responses to changes due to COVID. She explained that we have a natural cognitive bias to believe we can control outcomes which gives us confidence and is beneficial for our mental health, except right now, unexpected change has broken our illusion of control. Right now, while we can’t control many of the outcomes that we usually think we can, she reminded us that we can influence attitudes, effort and opportunity. She suggested that if we are positive, hopeful and enthusiastic about the upcoming school year, we can empower our kids to feel safe and confident.
As her concluding advice, the neuropsychologist offered these words:
Acknowledge the loss of previous expectations but then have hope and make new opportunities.
How can my child learn to manage getting schoolwork done at home?
Yes, but what if my child doesn’t want to engage in schoolwork at home? I appreciated this last question directed toward the executive function specialist on the panel because I knew from homeschooling in the spring that no matter how much enthusiasm and prep I bring to the dining-room-table-turned-makeshift-schoolroom, it’s up to my kids to participate. The expert loosely defined executive function as a group of important mental skills that helps us get things done. If a student struggles with these skills we might notice him or her having trouble staying focused or initiating, planning and executing a task. The student might have trouble with self-control, flexible thinking, or time management (meaning understanding the passage of time or “what 10 minutes feels like”).
Thankfully, the expert said, these skills can be taught and they can be learned. She suggested creating a workspace (get a caddie for materials, for example); creating a routine and predictable environment; having the child take part in creating the schedule; and getting an old fashioned wall clock (I bought two, one for the upstairs and one for the kitchen, and my kids’ eyes lit up as they told me that one of the clocks looked like the ones at school!).
As her concluding advice, the executive function coach offered these words:
Limit screen time. Imaginative play is the catalyst for executive function.
How can the church community support families during this time?
At the end of the panel round, the pastor opened up the meeting to questions from listeners, and I was floored when someone asked this one: how can we help? So many of us, myself included, feel completely drained right now, let we have nothing to offer. I braced myself as I waited for how the panelists would respond. If someone suggested I do something, I wasn’t sure I would be able to. But the answer surprised me. One panelist gently suggested that some of us may be struggling to understand why some communities are able to open their doors while others aren’t. That panelist encouraged us to remember that every community has different needs based on their red, yellow or green COVID status and to keep that in mind when we are tempted to compare. The panelist also encouraged us to check in on the mental health and wellness of neighbors and seek outdoor socially distanced playdates for our kids to help with their mental health and adjustment. My takeaways: Stop comparing. Get out to the park. These were definitely things to do.
Then the pastor closed in prayer and offered a blessing over the school year. I left the gathering feeling recharged and a little more equipped to see this experience through the eyes of my kids.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.