For most kids, last year was different compared to other school years. Maybe they had to learn at home and only attended class on video chat software. Maybe they didn’t get to see their school friends much, or socialize during lunch and recess periods.
Going into the next school year, they may be anxious about heading back into the classroom. This can be especially true if they’re going to a new school for the first time.
So, how can you as a parent help your child adjust to how school works in 2021? Unfortunately you can’t do the work for them, but you can change how you think and (more importantly) talk to your child about school. We’re going to go over the academic, emotional, and social topics that you should address with your kid this school year.
Prioritize mental health
The past year has been difficult on everyone’s mental health, and students are no different. A survey of parents conducted in October 2020 found that 31% reported their children’s mental or emotional health as being worse when compared to the beginning of the year. Here are two ways you can support your child’s mental health:
Be aware of mental issues
Look for signs that your child is experiencing mental health difficulties, including increased irritability, clinginess, or fear; issues sleeping; and reduced appetite. If you see these signs, communicate openly with them. Talk to them about the anxiety, depression, or stress that they’ve been feeling.
If these symptoms seem severe or worsen over time, consider talking to a health professional and, if necessary, getting your child mental health care. Many insurers and care providers have expanded telehealth availability recently, so your child may be able to see a counselor or therapist from the comfort of home.
Work on life skills
While your child is learning academic skills, some psychiatric researchers recommend talking about important life skills like coping with stress and problem-solving. Practice anxiety-reducing techniques with them, such as deep breathing, visualization, or rubbing a worry stone. Also, try to model good behavior in day-to-day life. When you or the family runs into an issue, demonstrate your strategies for coping with negative emotions and solving problems.
For older children, teach them household responsibilities such as money management, cleaning, and cooking. Use this time as an opportunity for them to learn responsibility, accountability, involvement, and collaboration. All of these skills will help make them more resilient in the future.
Address learning gaps
Researchers don’t know for sure how big of an impact COVID-19 had on learning loss, but some early studies point to the effects being significant. As a result, your child may need some extra help in school this year, even if they haven’t needed it before.
Pay close attention to how your child is doing on homework, quizzes, and tests. If you’re concerned about how your child is meeting state grade-level standards, you can use a program such as IXL to diagnose where their knowledge levels fall, as well as which concepts they know and which ones they still need to learn.
To catch your child back up, don’t just rely on extra individual study time. Seek help from outside sources. Here are a couple options you can try:
Private tutoring is the best way to ensure your child gets one-on-one help from an expert in the subjects they’re learning. Instruction is personalized to your child’s needs, and sessions can be tailored to fit your family’s schedule. Not only can a skilled tutor help your child close any learning gaps they may have developed; they can also teach study skills, confidence, and a joy for the subject material that will help them in school for years to come.
Tutoring can take place in-person or online, and is surprisingly affordable if you use the right sources. On Wyzant, the average cost of elementary school tutoring is $32/hr, and some tutors charge as low as $10/hr.
Forming a study group with some of your child’s peers from school or neighborhood friends is a communal way to help them all rise academically. Kids with an aptitude for certain subjects can help their friends who are struggling, which will also promote social bonding after a year of increased isolation.
Note that for elementary school and middle school students, you will probably want to have a parent lead the group and keep everyone on-task.
Help them adjust to in-person learning
Many schools are transitioning back to in-person instruction for most students. Even though it seems like things are returning back to normal, don’t expect or tell your child that school will be just like it was before the pandemic. Schools will be more conscious about social distancing and health practices for the foreseeable future, which will change both the classroom and more social activities like lunch.
Additionally, some schools will not jump right back into academics. Some will ease children back into typical school day routines with extra breaks, social-emotional learning activities, and bond-building between classmates who haven’t seen each other in a long time.
Masks in schools are a contentious topic of conversation right now. They’ve become a hot-button political issue, and there are plenty of myths surrounding mask use among kids.
Currently, masks are not mandated in public schools at the national level. Some states such as California and Delaware have issued statewide mask mandates, and a number of school districts are requiring masks as well. Generally, masks are recommended by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics regardless of vaccination status.
Talk to your child about what your expectations are around wearing a mask. Also talk about how other children in school may have different expectations from their parents, so they may treat masks differently. Be ready for the possibility of bullying around this issue, as some parents have very strong feelings about masks and those feelings can transfer to their children.
Connect with your child about their studies
Almost every parent asks their child how school was, and some kids love talking about school and giving detailed answers. However, other kids will respond with “fine” and nothing else. Normally that would be okay, but this is an important time to talk to your child about school to make sure they’re doing okay.
Ask open-ended questions
When you’re asking your child how school was, try to use open-ended questions. If you ask questions that can be answered in one word like “yes” or “good” then that may be all you’ll get. A question like “who did you like talking to the most today?” can draw out a more thorough response.
Before you ask a question, you may also want to lead into it with a statement so your child doesn’t feel blindsided or badgered. Something like, “When I was your age I read A Wrinkle in Time at school. What books are you reading in language arts?” Ideally these questions should feel like a conversation rather than an inquisition.
Relate your work to their schooling
Both workplaces and schools can have internal politics, frustrating rules, and stressful deadlines. The hurdles you face at work and that your child faces at school may be more similar than either of you realize. Talk about how you can better handle the challenges that arise in your own day-to-day life, and link those challenges to what your child is dealing with.
Be prepared for tough questions
A positive part of kids going back to school is that they’ll have a chance to learn more about the world. Sometimes, though, that can lead to them asking you heavy questions when they get home. These topics don’t just include the pandemic, but climate change, race, religion, and scary events from the news.
Child development experts recommend a few tips to help tackle tough questions from your child:
Give information they can manage
Give your child information at a pace they can manage, as young kids tend to process information bit by bit. Instead of giving one big complex answer, give small and short answers, and be prepared to revisit a topic multiple times.
Also, ask for clarification and background context. This will give you time to think of a careful answer, and it will help you figure out what your child is really asking. Your child may be motivated to ask a question because they want validation, or they may just be curious. Knowing why they’re asking a question will help you answer with just the right amount of information.
For complex issues where you don’t know all the details, don’t be afraid to offer to explore the question together. You don’t always have to have the right answer in the moment, and it’s okay to turn a tough question into a fact-finding adventure. Maybe you and your child could go to the library and find some age-appropriate books on the topic.
Finally, don’t neglect the emotional aspect of big questions. When kids ask a big question, they’re sometimes uncertain about how it’s going to affect their lives. Reassure your child that they are safe and loved to dispel any uncertainty they may have.
And don’t neglect your own emotional needs. If your child is asking questions about a topic that’s close to you, such as the death of a family member, don’t be afraid to share your own feelings or ask another adult for help.
Talking to your child about the 2021 school year
After a difficult year shaped by the pandemic, the 2021 school year is going to be different compared to what a lot of kids are used to. Knowing how to talk to your child about school this year will help them adjust to the new expectations and practices that schools have adopted, as well as maintain their mental and emotional wellbeing.
Parents this year will need to be more informed about mental health, and more attuned to how their children are feeling. You can teach your child basic calming strategies and problem-solving skills to help make them more self-reliant. However, you should also learn to ask the right questions, listen carefully to questions your child asks, and recognize signs of mental health struggles so you can offer the right support when it’s needed.
Academically, your child may need more of a boost in 2021 compared to other years. Hiring an in-person or online tutor can give your learner personalized lessons and close any learning gaps they may have developed. There are also unique benefits that can come from tutoring, like learning new study skills. For a communal (and free) way to help your child in school, you can try setting up a study group with their peers so they can help each other learn.
This year may be challenging, but with your vocal support your child can have a happy and healthy 2021 school year.