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Back to school, pandemic-style: 8 things children want you to know

As the school year begins, parents and students are looking forward to a “return to normal.” But this back-to-school experience is anything but normal. Some children are in school wearing masks, social distancing and sanitizing their hands as if they’re preparing for surgery. Meanwhile, others are attending class virtually from the comfort of their bedrooms. Going back to school in a pandemic is a big change, and no matter where students are learning, it can be overwhelming.

This is my 15th year teaching and I have been asking students what they are concerned about. The answers may be surprising.

They are scared

Children pay attention to the news and they know that amid COVID19, a heated election and civil unrest, distressing things are happening in the world right now. Sometimes, they find the news online by themselves. Other times, they overhear adult conversations.

Parents should ensure that their children are seeing and hearing reliable information and they should be ready to have honest, age-appropriate conversations with them about it. Parents need to reassure children that their family and school are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

They need predictability

A regular schedule goes a long way. Students learning in synchronous and in-person models will finally have the predictability they crave. If a child is learning asynchronously, they should have a schedule for learning that meets their family’s needs, while still maintaining consistency.

All children can benefit from an after-school routine such as snack, outside play, homework, technology, dinner, family time and finally bedtime. This can be printed and posted or written on a whiteboard and stay the same every day or rotate in a pattern.

But predictability isn’t just a day-to-day thing. Children often think of their lives in terms of seasons. Summer is usually their favorite because of the freedom and sunshine it offers. Some children sink into a mild depression when school starts, but soon the prospect of holidays such as Halloween and Christmas lift their spirits.

We will need to find other ways to celebrate Halloween and Christmas than trick-or-treating or large gatherings. The challenge will be to create other ways to celebrate, which will still give them something to look forward to.

They need friends

Friends increase our self-esteem, pick us up when we’re down, and make us feel “chosen” to be around rather than “assigned.”

One day, I realized that I connect with my friends every day over social media, texts and calls. But my younger children haven’t been in contact with their classmates since March because I had no idea how to get a hold of their parents.

I grew up in a close-knit neighborhood and always had someone to play with, but we live in the country and have no close neighbors. I’m also a “mean” mother who won’t let my sixth-grader have a phone or social media, but I do let him talk to his friends over Zoom.

My children have each other, but they also need to develop social skills to have fun with people who don’t share their address. School offers that opportunity even if it is through a screen. I am going to incorporate some social time into my classes with a hidden academic agenda.

Parents should pay attention to who their child is talking to after school, first, for safety reasons, and, second, to monitor the child’s emotional state. When they stop talking about their “best friends” and seem sullen, it may be time for a talk. 

They need rest

Besides the obvious need for a good night’s sleep, children need rest for their brains and bodies.

Dustin Bentkowski, a middle-school teacher at St. Joan of Arc School in Aberdeen, took his students outside for a “mask break” one afternoon this week. Masks can get hot and uncomfortable, even in air-conditioned spaces and can be distracting. Bentkowski was also giving the students at home a much needed “screen break.”

My son, who is learning virtually, has been complaining that his eyes were bothering him, but he just aced his vision test last week. I bought him a pair of blue light filtering glasses and they have made a difference. Children may benefit from outside play after school rather than starting homework right away. It will give their lungs (in-school) and eyes (virtual) some much-needed rest. 

They need an outlet

Extracurricular activities used to be the panacea for a long, hard day of learning, but many have been postponed or canceled. These are the places where children get to explore their passions with like-minded people. It is more important than ever that children have something to look forward to outside of school in the areas of athletics, the arts, and academics.

If children don’t have options at their school or recreation council, parents can search for online programs. And families can always assemble a few friends virtually or in-person to play sports, write code for video games, create art or start a band.

They need their space

By now, a child’s virtual learning space is probably established, but even if a child is attending school in person, they should have an area just for them. They should have a quiet, comfortable space with adequate wifi access. Use furniture or dividers to break down a space.

Children should have headphones that include a microphone.  Minimize distractions around the area and declutter the space.

I keep all of my son’s materials in a small heavy-duty plastic bin, which he keeps beside his desk. I also gave him a padded cushion that supports his back. He was so zoned into his class when I came up to get him for his doctor’s appointment that he didn’t even notice me. It was like he was actually there.

Also, be sure to respect your child’s personal space: Children are excited to be back around their friends, but it can be overwhelming. Rather than bombarding them with questions when you pick them up in the school parking lot or from their at-home learning space, give them some downtime to process their day.

They need you

Back-to-school time brings on a bundle of nerves for children and teachers alike. I am approaching 40, and I still need my mother to help me get ready for school. They (children and teachers) may be more hyper, weepy or grouchier than usual from late-August to mid-September. Don’t take it personally. They are going through an emotional process and there are no real shortcuts.

Instead, there’s catharsis when they finish the first weeks of school and develop a routine. What parents can make sure that students have all the supplies they need, that they’ve attended any back-to-school meetings (live or virtual), and that they shower children with praise and encouragement.

They appreciate you

Families have spent a lot more time together in the past six months and mostly it has made us closer. Parents have seen their children through their teacher’s eyes and children have seen new sides of their parents, some good, some bad.

Parents may not realize it, but children are in awe of them and everything that they do. They are doing so many things big and small that are creating positive memories during a dark time for children, and now it’s their teachers’ turn.

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