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The new normal: Advice for parents on back-to-school transitions

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By the time COVID-19 took hold of the world in 2020, nearly 93% of households with school-age children transitioned to some form of distance learning. With California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s commitment to returning students safely to in-person instruction this fall, children are again navigating the stress of a changing learning environments and resuming social activities.

Cardinal at Work, Stanford’s online employee-support portal, partnered with Parents Place — a division of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services that provides support to Bay Area families — to organize workshops for caregivers on how to support children’s transition to in-person learning. 

Marriage and family therapist Brittney Reiser and modern parent coach Kiran Gaind provided advice on how to minimize anxiety and use lessons learned in quarantine to guide families post-pandemic during two sessions in July. 

Anxiety is already one of the most common emotional issues in children, and the turbulence of pandemic and post-pandemic life has amplified this problem, according to Reiser. 

“When we don’t know what to expect or how to predict something will go,” Reiser said, “it’s too much for our minds and bodies, and we get really overwhelmed — that tends to show up in anxiety.” 

As kids transition back to school over the coming weeks, parents are reflecting not only on ways to minimize their child’s anxiety but also on how they can make their lives better than before the pandemic. 

Here are a few tips the experts said are crucial to helping children. 

Have open conversations about post-pandemic life

Children returning to in-person learning may struggle to understand what type of environment they will be entering in the fall. As kids rejoin their communities, empathy and open communication between parents and their children is essential.

“We want to show our children that we can talk about this, and also that as parents you can handle their feelings,” Reiser said. 

During these conversations, parents should help set realistic expectations about post-pandemic life while fostering a safe space for kids to discuss their worries, Reiser added. 

“This might be like a different version of normal,” Resier said. “Maybe your child was expecting it to go back to exactly how it was before.”

In stressful times, parents should be available to talk to their children and provide information, support and validation. To avoid confusion and ease unnecessary stress, parents should clearly communicate their expectations for how children should act outside their home. 

Preparing your kids for changes as they go back to in-person learning can be helpful, Reiser said. Students’ free time may look different, and, in most California schools, children will be expected to wear masks and adhere to social-distancing guidelines. 

Having these honest discussions may also help parents identify and address sources of anxiety for their kids. With so many fears stemming from the unpredictability of pandemic life, Reiser said that easing kids back into their activities  — such as by previewing locations where programs will take place — may help minimize anxiety.

Shift from conventional to “true care”

Productive family interactions can decrease the stress levels of parents and their children, according to Gaind. The key to these positive interactions is their mindsets. Gaind helps her clients shift their mindsets from “conventional care” — that focuses on compliance, anxiety, reactivity and entitlement — to “true care,” based on the pillars of connection, authenticity, responsiveness and empathy.

Families are “more effective in the decisions that they’re making and the ways they’re interacting” when they practice “true care,” Gaind said. Families may feel more at peace and find they have more respect for one another when communicating this way. 

Designing group activities focused on fostering connection, honesty and compassion effectively implements “true care” into daily family life, Gaind said. Practicing back-to-school routines, holding weekly family meetings to problem solve and engaging in discussions about world issues at the dining table can foster more frequent, meaningful interactions between family members and help decrease friction during the transition back to in-person activities.

Establish a daily routine

As situations constantly change and new health and social guidelines come out, a routine can bring a sense of stability to a child’s life, according to Reiser. Whether by setting up a consistent activity schedule or creating a morning routine, structure can help alleviate the sense of uncertainty brought by their transition back to school. 

“If you can create an environment that has a routine that’s predictable and consistent, that helps an extraordinary amount with a child’s anxiety,” Reiser said. 

Remember the importance of a balanced lifestyle

To thrive in their post-pandemic lives, families should reflect on what each member needs to be safe, happy and healthy, Gaind said. Ask yourself, “What did your family need at the height of the pandemic? What really mattered?”

“I think those kinds of self-reflection questions can help us articulate what our core values are,” Gaind added. Knowing everyone’s needs can help families find their way out of the uncertainty and stress caused by pandemic-related transitions.

As kids return to in-person learning, families should not forget the important role a balanced lifestyle will play in their transition, Gaind said. “The Healthy Mind Platter,” designed by David Rock and Daniel Siegel, is a framework of seven components necessary to a healthy and productive life: sleep time, physical time, focus time (academics), connecting time, playtime, downtime and time in (reflection).

Gaind reminds parents that children need balance to optimize their mental health. “If we want our kids to do well in school and do well in life, they need all of these pieces to be there.”

Go easy on yourself and others

Navigating post-pandemic life will inevitably be tricky, and mistakes will be made, Reiser said. Children may seem far more sensitive to seemingly small disturbances, especially in high-stress environments; their behavior, however, may be a way for the mind to release feelings of anxiety or frustration. Rather than focusing on the details of a tantrum or outbreak, Reiser encouraged parents to take a step back and consider what greater worry may be causing their child’s behavior.

Throughout this transition, parents should not only have empathy and patience for their children, but also for themselves. Parents should not expect to handle every situation perfectly — it’s more important that guardians acknowledge their mistakes and openly work to improve their reactions, Reiser added. 

Returning to in-person activities is a major change both for children and adults. “One of the biggest take-home messages from this presentation is to align and attune to what’s happening with your child and be easy with yourself,” Reiser said. “We’re all learning how to deal with it.”

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