Back to school after virtual learning: 4 strategies for less stress

Featured on WTOP News: https://wtop.com/parenting/2021/08/back-to-school-after-virtual-learning-4-strategies-for-less-stress-this-school-year/

This year, far more than any other year, communication and organization are really important. Kids are anxious about their return to school, especially after almost a year and a half of online learning, and so are parents. By practicing effective communication, we can reduce kids’ fears and ours, as well. Here are four tips to help you make this school year successful:

1. Set up a time to talk

It’s natural for kids to feel nervous at the start of a school year, but this year they may also have fears about COVID, returning to school in-person five days a week, or be worried about a subject that was especially challenging in the virtual classroom (hello math!).

It’s important to give space and time to allow them to open up about their fears. Set up a time to talk before school starts. Schedule an “appointment.”

You might say “Hey, can we talk about school stuff after dinner tonight? How about 7:30?”

Here are some questions to ask:

“How are you feeling about the start of school?”

“What do you think will be different?”

“How do you think others are feeling?” This question is especially helpful because children don’t often realize that others have the same exact worries. Realizing they’re not alone can help to normalize feelings.

When your child expresses a fear, be careful not to discount it by saying, “Don’t worry! It’s going to be fine,” or “Worrying doesn’t help at all. Just do your best and it will be OK.”

By discounting kids’ fears, we negate their concerns. Instead, use this time to be a good listener and to empathize. You can do this by saying “I can understand your feelings…,” nodding and allowing your child to share openly.

2. Have a weekly ‘Sunday session’

Set up a casual weekly meeting with your kids.

I like Sundays around dinner time (or even over a meal) since it allows everyone to think about the week ahead without distractions. Planning is really hard for most kiddos, especially those with weak executive function skills (a fancy word for study habits).

During this time, you’re going to chat about the upcoming week. For elementary schoolers you might talk about what’s going on after school. Perhaps you have a calendar on the fridge with their extracurriculars (which is a great idea because younger kids need visuals). By talking through the schedule, you’ll be on the same page as your kids and help them learn the importance of planning in advance.

For older students, you can go a little more in depth. Talk about the weekly schedule, but also share what you have going on so they can anticipate travel schedules and transportation needs for extracurriculars, like sports practice. You and your child will value these conversations because it reduces the last-minute stress of a situation when someone forgets about a dance practice or violin lesson.

You can also use this time to think ahead about academics.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask to get your child thinking about their assignments:

“What do you have coming up this week?”

“What tests, quizzes or projects are due?”

Setting aside time for kids to open their laptops and see what’s on their calendar is extremely helpful. Without this verbal prompt, many will just show up to school on Monday unprepared, which is not a good way to start the week!

When you ask your kids about their schoolwork, don’t expect a detailed explanation like this one, “Well, gee Mom, let me see. I’ve got a biology test on Friday, an English essay due on Thursday, and oh! I can’t forget that I have to present my group project in history on Wednesday …”

Some of the best sessions I’ve had with kids involves their own self-discovery where I’ve said something like:

“Tell me what you have going on this week. What does your week look like?”

Then I see it click in their mind as they think about various classes and ultimately say, “Oh shoot, I need to order ‘Catcher in the Rye’ on Amazon. I totally forgot I have to read chapter one by Friday.” Or “Ugh … I can’t believe I have two tests on Friday. That’s so unfair!”

Sure, the timing of two tests on Friday isn’t ideal, but without having time set aside to look at the week at a glance, it’s unlikely this student would have thought ahead to study over a few nights instead of cramming the night before. So the exchange doesn’t have to require lots of talking, just a bit of prompting.

During your Sunday Session, do your best to not use judgmental questions or tones.

And if you’ve said some of these things, don’t worry. We’ve all been there. But try to avoid “judgment” statements such as:

“Why didn’t you start that history project yet?”

“OMG! I’m so sick of you procrastinating!”

“You said you already had the supplies for that project, and now you’re asking me to take you to Michael’s at the last minute?”

The time needs to be a “no judgment zone” in order for it to work. Otherwise, kids will tune parents out in two seconds flat.

Our job isn’t to micromanage our kids.

I’ve never found micromanagement to be a successful strategy as a parent or educator. No one likes to be told what to do, especially kids! But what does work is asking kids questions out of curiosity and listening well.

This is easier said than done, so if you’d like a bit of help in this department, I highly recommend the classic book, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen.” There’s a reason this book has been a New York Times bestseller and is beloved by parents around the world!

3. Consider the Clean Sweep

Let’s talk about organization! The real trick to help kids stay neat is to set up a recurring system. I call this one “The Clean Sweep.” It’s a weekly appointment to get organized. It can be set up on Sunday evenings either in place of the Sunday Session or in addition to it. Ideally, it’s at the beginning of the week, so Monday may work well, too.

Here’s how to do it:

Choose a time, say 7 — 7:20 p.m., and everyone in your family gets involved. Everyone — not just your disorganized kid — is straightening up their materials and getting organized for the week.

It could be that your kids are organizing their binders and getting their papers in order while you clean out your purse or perhaps organize the junk drawer.

Given that Fairfax County Public Schools has moved away from Blackboard to Schoology, it’s also an excellent time to ask your child to show you how work is assigned and housed in the new system.

It doesn’t really matter what the task is, but the idea is to have that standing appointment to maintain neatness on a weekly basis. And to make it light, crank up your child’s favorite music. Kids are more likely to participate if the session is not arduous, but is easy and productive instead.

4. Use a ‘Launchpad’ to make mornings easier

The Sunday Session and Clean Sweep are great ways to get ready for the week ahead, and a Launchpad can help you get ready for the next day.

School mornings can be rushed and stressful, especially after a year of mostly virtual learning. You can eliminate the stress by setting up a “launchpad” by your front door (or by the door from which your child exits each morning) before the school year begins. This can be a basket, box, even an old dish pan! Really any container that can hold the items that need to go to school the next day (think backpacks, lunchboxes, sports gear …)

Cue your kids to get everything in the launchpad the night before to ensure your morning is organized and stress-free! This will allow the entire family to launch into each day confident, prepared, and ready for success.

The evening is also an ideal time for kids to lay out the clothes they’re going to wear the next day or to begin packing their lunches. The key is to get the things that cause stress in the morning taken care of the night before.

Back to school is typically a stressful time for families until they settle into a routine. Nothing has been routine the past year, so now, more than ever, it’s important to practice communicating effectively with our kids and implement activities that create good habits. By demonstrating patience and a willingness to listen, we can help them achieve all they’re capable of academically and beyond.