As the summer ramps up and the fall year approaches, many parents are wondering how to best prepare their children for going back to school during this still uncertain time. The deadly pandemic and a year-and-a-half of virtual classes has taken its toll on a lot of students, and returning to in-person classes may reawaken their anxieties and fears.
To prepare your kids for going back to school while ensuring they have a positive, fulfilling summer, six teachers from across the country are here to share their advice and best practices.
Sarah Miller | K-12 Teacher and Founder of HomeSchooling4Him
One of the biggest challenges that parents can expect when kids go back to school in person is the change in routine. Many students have become used to the flexibility and independence of school at home. Most families also found that school at home didn’t take as much time as traditional school, which left kids with more free time.
This means that kids will need some time to adjust as they return to a longer school day, with less flexibility and independence to get schoolwork done. Students will need to get used to waking up earlier and spending more time at school and sitting at a desk than they are used to.
To address these challenges, one of the best things that parents can do is to start slowly adjusting their child’s routine over several weeks before school starts. In particular, parents should help their child adjust to an earlier bedtime that will allow them to get enough sleep and wake up rested. Numerous studies have linked getting enough sleep with better performance in school, and kids will have an easier time adjusting to the new routine when they are well rested.
Parents can also be intentional about connecting with their child’s teacher. Over this last year, many parents have had the opportunity to get to know their kids in a new way while helping them through their assignments at home. As your child’s parent, you have always been the expert in what makes your child unique. But now, many parents have additional inside knowledge into how their kids learn and what motivates them. This knowledge can be really helpful to your child’s teacher as they get to know your child. Feel free to speak up and share any concerns with your child’s teacher. Teachers want to help, but they aren’t always aware of the struggles that kids are having, especially at home.
Avoiding summer learning loss
One of the most important things that parents can do to prevent summer learning loss is to encourage their kids to read, and to spend time reading together as a family. Choose a book to read out loud to your child, and make reading time a part of your family’s routine. I like to read to my kids while they are eating, because it’s an easy way to be consistent without adding extra time to our busy schedule.
If your kids are old enough to read independently, take regular trips to the library with them. Allow them to pick books that they would enjoy reading. Plan some time for silent reading daily. Since many kids often stay up later in the summer, an easy way to do this is to extend your child’s bedtime by 30 minutes so that your child can read in bed before going to sleep.
Another fun way to prevent learning loss is to play games and do activities together as a family. Many board games and card games require math skills to play, and this is a great way for kids to keep those math facts fresh. Kids can join you in the kitchen for some cooking; this is a fun way to practice fractions, measurement, and following directions.
You can also encourage your kids to research topics they are interested in. A family trip to the beach might inspire your child to learn about different kinds of shells, or a road trip might be the perfect time to learn about map reading and geography. Look for topics your child is interested in that you can encourage them to explore further, and then provide some resources at home to encourage that interest.
Don’t overdo it
In order to prepare a student without overwhelming them, it is important that parents spend time talking with their kids about what to expect. Even if kids have been to school in person before, it’s likely that school will look different this year than kids remember, as many schools have implemented new policies to prevent the spread of germs.
Over the weeks before school starts, take some time to talk with your child about what school will be like, and what to expect in different scenarios. Kids will feel more calm and confident if they understand what will be happening before it happens. If possible, it can help to take your child to the school so they can find their classroom, the cafeteria, and their locker. They could meet their teacher or plan a playdate with another child who will be in their class.
It’s also very important to spend time actively listening to your child. Ask your child what they are thinking about school, and what concerns they have, and then listen to their replies. This is a big change for kids and it’s important to take time to listen to your child throughout the school year so that you can be there to support them through the transition.
Parents should also be careful not to overschedule their kids in the fall. The transition back to school is a big change to your child’s routine, and it is important that kids still have time for independent play each day, even when they are in school. It can be tempting to sign kids up for several after school activities and extracurriculars, but it is important to make sure that kids have time to play and relax, too.
Set an example
Another helpful idea is for parents to focus on the positive aspects of school when their kids are around. Kids take their cues for how they should respond to a situation from their parents. So, if you’re concerned about your school’s policies or sad that you will miss your child, your child will likely feel concerned and sad too. Instead, focus on the good and exciting aspects of the change.
When you drop your child off on the first day, let your child know that you are excited for the opportunities they will have, remind them that you will be there to pick them up, and then leave quickly and confidently. Sad and prolonged goodbyes make it much harder for your child. If you need to, wait around the corner for five minutes and then peek back in to check on your child. Almost all kids are just fine in less than five minutes after you leave.
Anne Armstrong | Middle School Teacher and Founder of My Gnome on the Roam
After living through nearly a year-and-a-half of a pandemic, kids are going to face some unique challenges when returning to school this fall.
First, kids will likely need to wear a mask and continue the health measures that began with COVID. For kids who aren’t receiving the vaccine, some discussions may need to be had about how to navigate sharing (or not sharing) that information with friends and other students. Ideally, schools will have a policy on things like eating lunch, bringing birthday treats, and other sharing situations that will require careful navigation.
If your school doesn’t have a policy, I would suggest assembling a group of parents to put one together. I would also make sure my kids know the policy before returning, so they have an idea of what to do and not do.
Avoiding summer learning loss
I believe learning loss is a myth. A love of learning and curiosity is the stuff summers are best at. Satisfying wanderlust by exploring, making things, visiting museums, reading great books, watching great movies, full moons, sunsets. These are the things that spur real learning.
Parents can also do things like quick math checks, have their kids write about their summer discoveries, and encourage their kids to write to pen pals to keep their brains in tune. But rest assured that encouraging curiosity is the very best way not just to prevent “learning loss,” but to encourage a lifelong love of learning. Summer is the time to make memories.
*Anne’s app offers daily adventures that work for any age.
Don’t overdo it
To prepare kids without overwhelming them, a couple weeks before school begins, parents and kids should discuss school schedules, including bedtime and wake up time. Consider starting the schedule a few days before the first day of school so that everyone can get adapted.
- Make a list of lunches and snacks students can pack themselves.
- Have conversations about what your kids are excited about, and any fears they might have (COVID-related or other)
- Review simple math and writing to make sure they are prepared to reengage.
One more thing. Remember those pesky combination locks you had to start using for lockers? Parents can also help students about to enter middle school or high school prepare by practicing with a combination lock.
David Egolf | Head of Corlears School
Students who have been learning at home partially or fully for an extended period of time may need some time to adjust to returning to in-person school life. Children already use a lot of energy and focus to follow the social norms and expectations of classroom and social life at school.
Expect students to be physically worn out when they reenter and allow for a lighter schedule in general, especially plan for less after school activities and earlier bedtimes.
Avoiding summer learning loss
The most important and effective way to combat learning loss over the summer is to read. Read to your children, and, when they are able, have them read to you and to themselves. Strong reading skills have a huge impact on student success in multiple areas.
It also doesn’t hurt to have students maintain or develop automaticity in the math facts appropriate for their age. There are a few key sets of simple math facts, like addition and multiplication facts through 11 that allow students to focus on deeper understanding of numbers once they are under their belt.
There is no need to jump the line though. Take your cues from your child’s school about which facts are appropriate, because you don’t want your child memorizing number facts abstractly before they even know what addition or multiplication actually means.
Don’t overdo it
Keep the focus on reading and concrete facts that students will really benefit from having memorized. Be transparent with your children about why these things are helpful and important.
Otherwise, think about how any summer travel or activities might increase student motivation during the school year. Consider exposing your child to fun experiences related to their social studies or humanities themes in the coming year. Then have conversations with them that help them process and embed their experiences as deeper understanding. This will increase their motivation and prime their brain for deeper learning.
Common back-to-school missteps
One misstep parents can make is when they tell their children that they are going to be fine going back to school because they are “smart” or “good at school,” “good at math,” etc. Always use growth mindset language with your children to ensure that they know that success in school (in all subjects) is the result of hard work, not innate abilities.
So, as they are getting ready to go back to school, reinforce that it’s okay if things become difficult or challenging at school, because we know that when we work hard at something that is challenging, we always get better.
Donna Volpitta,Ed.D. | Founder & Education Director, Pathways To Empower
This past year has been traumatic for everyone. As kids head back to school, there is likely to be anxiety, particularly for those who have not been in person in a very long time. Our brains are wired to respond the same way to social threats as physical threats, so in addition to the fears that kids have over the risks of getting COVID (and possibly spreading it to family members), they are likely going to have fears over social threats, which can range from how they will perform in class to interactions with peers to the fear of the unknown.
The best way for parents to alleviate those fears is to give kids a sense of control over them—actions that they can take so that they are prepared to handle the challenges. Parents can help make things as predictable as possible, being honest about what we can control and what we cannot.
Avoiding summer learning loss
Having kids spend some time each day over the summer engaging in reading and perhaps math can be helpful, but it is also really important for kids to socialize and play. Balance is key. Focusing too much on academics can backfire, particularly if kids are stressed out. So try a bit of everything. Read with your kids to give them a sense of security and foster their academic progress. Make a plan for a routine that kids can follow, making sure that they are getting outside and moving around, rather than staying inside all day.
Security & autonomy
The two most important things we can do for our children is to give them a sense of security and opportunities for autonomy. One of the common missteps parents commit is interfering when their child is struggling, rather than communicating to their child that it is okay to struggle, and that they can handle these challenges.
As parents, we want to be needed and we don’t like to watch our kids struggle, but it is only through that struggle that they achieve the autonomy needed to become successful adults.
Self-esteem isn’t a gift we can give, it is a neurochemical response we rob people of when we don’t let them struggle toward success. And those neurochemicals are critical to healthy brain development and driving our behavior. When we don’t allow that struggle, we are priming our kids’ brains for addiction, anxiety, and depression.
Scaffolding & scripting
I like to teach parents two tools: scaffolding and scripting.
Scaffolding comes from construction and is the idea of providing support in learning stages. We should always be thinking about the goal of independence and what supports we need to put into place four our children to get there. Gradually, we remove the supports to help our kids gain independence.
Take the example of teaching kids to ride a bike. At first we hold on tightly, then gradually we let go. We can do that for almost any skill.
Scripting is the same thing, but specifically about providing language for kids (or adults) to handle situations.
To make sure they’re not robbing their kids of autonomy and security, parents can ask themselves the all-important question: Am I doing things for my kids (enabling) or teaching them the skills they need in order to do it without me?
*If you want to learn more about Donna’s research-based strategies for student mental health, visit Pathways to Empower
Becky Dukes | Teacher, District Leader, and Owner of Schoolhouse Mentoring
If your child is returning to school in the fall after not attending school face-to-face last year, they may exhibit some signs of anxiety. So many families have had traumatic experiences as a result of COVID-19 such as family members or friends getting sick, or even losing a loved one. This may cause some children to be afraid of being in places with large crowds.
Parents can help prepare their students for returning to the school building and face-to-face instruction in several ways:
- Get children mentally prepared by asking them how they feel about going back, and address any concerns that they may have.
- Allow children some time to socialize with other students before returning, and practice social skills at home. Students may be out of practice at tasks we take for granted, like taking turns, sharing materials, and listening. These are all skills that are important for success in the school setting.
- Go over new rules and expectations around COVID-19 such as wearing a mask, staying six feet apart, and practicing hand hygiene. Let them know if meals will be eaten in the classroom and if extra-curricular activities are allowed. The more they know about what to expect during the school day, the smoother things will go.
Avoiding summer learning loss
Plan for learning experiences this summer like trips to zoos, parks, museums, and events. Basically, anything with nature, animals, or technology that allows your child to experience real learning about things that they are curious about, or have never seen or heard of before.
They also need a break from screen time. There has been too much of that this year, so don’t require them to spend hours on education apps. Instead of a math app, for instance, you could try doing hands-on activities (also called math manipulatives) with household items like counting beans or making patterns with pasta shapes.
But the number one thing that you can do to help avoid learning loss is to read books to and with your child. If they are older, you can both read a book and have discussions like you would in a book club. You can even form a book club with some of their friends to encourage reading, and plan meetups to discuss in-person.
Don’t overdo it
Balance is important and kids need time to be kids. Encourage outdoor play and connecting with other children, while also setting aside short periods of time throughout the week for learning activities.
Pay attention to how your child responds to the learning activities. Make sure the lines of communication are open. As educators, we know that students are not going to catch up overnight, but we also know that our students have learned so much during the pandemic that we can’t teach at school. We need to honor the hard work that parents have put in during the past year and half for their children.
Jessica Robinson | Teacher and Content Manager of The Speaking Polymath
The impending change from remote learning to traditional learning is triggering mixed feelings in a lot of people. Over the last year, we’ve become used to having our kids around all the time. And though the cases of COVID infection have considerably decreased with widespread vaccination, the pandemic is still not over. So it will be really hard to send our children back to school.
One thing we can do to help our kids sail through this change is getting back into healthy habits. Before school begins, help your kids return to the habit of wearing a face mask, regularly sanitizing their hands, and taking other COVID safety precautions, even if you have been more lax in recent months. Not only will they be prepared for a new, potentially stricter environment, I know that when I see my kids prepared, I feel better myself.
It’s also important to stay relaxed and remember that we’ve made tremendous progress. With vaccines, our chances of developing a severe infection are rare. So, whenever worries engulf me, I take a deep breath and remind myself of how far we’ve come.
One of the most important things we need to do to help our kids overcome back to school anxiety is express confidence in their abilities to handle life’s challenges. When you’re confident in your child, they feel empowered. After all, you are the one they look up to. Your confidence gives them self-confidence.
I’ve noticed this effect in my kids. Whenever they think they can’t do anything, I just remind them that they’ve overcome many challenges throughout their life. This motivates them, allowing them to overcome feelings of self-doubt and do big things.
Common back-to-school missteps
Parents often feel that they have the right experience to guide their kids in life. Those feelings are fine, but parents should understand that micromanaging is not. Let your kids make some decisions on their own. Sure, they might make the wrong decisions, but it will help them learn to make the right ones in the future.
- Letting kids miss the first day of school
Many students miss the first day of school. When I ask their parents why, they say that they just wanted another day to stay back. But if parents let their children take the easier path every time, they won’t learn the value of discipline, and repeat the same behavior over and over again.
The line between letting your child make mistakes and not letting your child repeat mistakes is a fine one, but walking it allows your child to flourish.
Back to school takeaways
You may have noticed some common themes in our six teachers’ answers. If your child is returning to in-person classes this fall, consider:
- Talking honestly with them about their concerns and working through them together
- Getting them back into the habit of washing hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing
- Balancing structured learning times with play, new experiences, and opportunities for them to explore
- Making sure your kids know it’s okay if things are challenging, and it’s okay to struggle
- Read, read, read!