By: Bridgeway Academy’s Psychology Team
The “new normal”? These “challenging” or “uncertain” times? Whatever you call it, we’ve been living it for six months now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a true test of our global community’s ability to adapt to change and cope with the whole range of emotions, all of which are completely valid and normal to experience (often within the same day!). While the shock of the pandemic has likely worn off for many of us, there is still the lingering feeling of ‘How do we move forward now?’ This Fall brings an added layer of difficulty as we help our children get back into the swing of a new school year after being out of their “normal” routine for the last 4-6 months! Below, the Bridgeway Academy Psychology Department offers ways to help you and your child(ren) move forward as they provide tips and suggestions for reacclimating to the new school year (whatever that may look like for you).
But first: What’s your child feeling?
Below are a few possible emotions your child – and you – may have experienced in the past few months and may still be experiencing with the neverending changes these challenging times present:
- Grief: missing time spent with friends and family or attending extracurricular activities, the cancellation or postponement of vacations and local trips; grief can be expressed as sadness, irritability, and/or anger
- Anxiety and stress: about whether friends or family will catch COVID-19 and experience serious complications, financial stressors, about how to read others’ emotions or interpret verbal messages when talking to someone who’s wearing a mask, about what the future holds as information about safety protocols is constantly changing
- Frustration: over constantly being required to adapt to change, not being able to get back to favorite activities, feelings of boredom or “Groundhog Day”, the increase in virtual demands in place of face-to-face learning/therapies/socialization, having to wait for concrete information about how reopenings will look for a wide variety of settings
- Happiness: many people are identifying the “silver linings” of COVID-19, such as enjoying the chance to slow down from busy schedules and spend quality time with their families or developing new hobbies or skills while stuck at home (e.g., cooking, art)
Starting the new school year
Whether your child is returning to school full-time, on a hybrid schedule, learning virtually from home, or beginning a homeschool curriculum, every situation presents a set of challenges and opportunities for growth. Below are some tips to help you and your child navigate these new and unfamiliar waters [please note: we suggest picking 1-2 areas you would like to build upon first; trying to implement all of these tips at once may be overwhelming for both the caregiver and the child(ren)]:
Share age appropriate information once available:
Read over and digest the school plans before discussing it in any detail with your child. This will look different depending on the age of your child. For example, preschoolers may understand more concrete changes to their school day, such as having to wear a mask or washing their hands more frequently, whereas elementary school students who may have a better understanding of why there are new rules but may need help coping with any feelings of “loss” (e.g., classrooms are in cohorts so they may not see their friends every day, only seeing their friends on a screen, modified or canceled extracurricular activities
Practice: Practice wearing a mask with your child or role playing their favorite stuffed animals/toys wearing masks and exhibiting social distancing. Consider using a social story or video modeling to help teach and practice these new skills. Help your child create a short list of go-to songs they can sing while washing their hands to help them reach that 20 second mark. Here are a few new songs to try!
Answer their questions:
Kids cope with their emotions in different ways, and while some may benefit from hearing a lot of information about how school will be different because this can help them to know what to expect, others may only need/want to know general details about changes to come. In some cases, you may not have all of the answers, but answering their questions the best that you can will help ease some of their anxieties about the upcoming school year. Refrain from using the news or media as a way for children to learn the information. Instead, a social story or developmentally/age appropriate conversation can help explain this unfamiliar, complicated topic to children in a more digestible way.
Practice: Play a familiar game with your child (e.g., Candyland) and modify it to allow for opportunity for questions, discussions, or sharing feelings about all the changes we are going through. For example, spinning red or drawing a red card means you name one thing that makes you mad about the new school year, orange means asking a question about the school year, etc. Jotting the categories down on a scrap piece of paper or dry erase board helps! A personal favorite of Bridgeway Academy’s psychologists is to pair the colors of the game you are playing with the emotions from the movie Inside Out for the topics. Rainbow Jenga lends itself perfectly for this approach!
Normalize their fears and worries:
When kids are upset or worried, they may not always understand what they are feeling or why. Modeling your own emotion identification and regulation can help kids understand and express their feelings appropriately. For example, you could explain “I’m frustrated because I can’t see my friends in person, but I’m going to Facetime with one of them for lunch today so we can catch up. That will help!” to cover the what, why, and how of the problem/problem solving process. As situations arise, explain to your child that what they are feeling is normal and try to incorporate feeling vocabulary throughout the day. Help your child identify by name who they can talk to in specific settings, such as their teacher or therapist.
Practice: Practice with your child how to raise their hand in class (or, if learning online, how to reach their teacher) and what to say to let the teacher know they are feeling uneasy; teach your child how to do this privately if they do not want an audience listening while they talk to their teacher. Reach out to your child’s speech therapist and education team for individualized approaches if your child communicates with a device, PECs, or sign language.
Help them manage their emotions:
It is important for strategies to be taught and practiced during times when your child is calm. This allows them to build their skills before they need to apply them in more distressing situations. After teaching the skills, you can remind your child when to use them. For example, if your child seems nervous, you can say, “This is a good time to take a few deep breaths. Let’s do it together.” Here are a few other strategies to check out:
Practice #1: Grounding techniques: pick a color and find five things of that color in the room and then list them aloud. Continue with different colors or quantities as needed. A similar approach is a Mindfulness technique that involves going through the five senses and identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste at that time. More great visuals can be found here!
Practice #2: Positive Imagery: think about an enjoyable place like the beach or the forest to take a “mental vacation.” Help your child name specific things they are picturing in their imagination, like the warm sun on their skin, the sound of ocean waves, or the smell of delicious food.
Practice #3: Relaxation techniques: take several slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth; adding a tangible activity to this technique, such as blowing bubbles, can often make it easier for children to slow down. Contact your child’s occupational therapist for more individualized approaches.
Get back in a routine:
Combating the seemingly never ending ambiguity we now face with predictable schedules/routines is one sure-fire way to help everyone feel a little more grounded each day.
Practice: Practice using a visual schedule each day to keep everyone on track with their new routine regardless of where their learning environment is. Reach out to your child’s teacher or program director/manager for help creating visuals that suit your child’s needs. Check out these ideas!
If you have any questions about any of the above suggestions and strategies or about starting the school year in general, reach out to your support team! We’ve all heard it 1,000 times by now, but this is especially true at Bridgeway Academy… we’re all in this together!