After months of staying at home during the school closure and summer break, the return to school will be a significant change in the daily lives of children. This change or “transition” from being in one place (home) to another place (school) will require some adjustment for all, but may require more significant adjustment for a few. For many children, compared to school, home has felt comfortable, has been less structured, and has put fewer demands on them.
Children returning to distance education will also experience a transition. While their setting might remain the same, their routines and the amount of time engaged in structured, adult-directed activities will be different. It is important to think of the transition back to school as a process that involves a variety of skills.
Psychological Services staff have compiled this resource to provide caregivers with effective strategies for supporting their children in the transition back to school.
What skills are involved when children are asked to “change gears” and transition from one setting to another?
In order to successfully make a “transition,” children must be able to “shift.” This may sound simple enough, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Different settings and situations require different ways of thinking. When children are asked to “shift” from home to school, or from seeing home as a place to relax and unwind to one where they do all of their school work, we may be asking them to:
- Stop doing something enjoyable or that requires little mental effort in order to do something that is less enjoyable and/or that requires more mental effort. This can feel tiring, stressful, or frustrating.
- Start directing their attention. Children will need to return to focusing and sustaining their own attention to tasks for as long as needed.
- Prioritize tasks. Children will be asked to plan and organize their time, letting go of time spent on recreational interests and making time for tasks directed by their teachers and caregivers.
- Manage their emotions as they switch gears and cope with uncertainty. Experiences related to things like change in routines, being apart from caregivers, or concerns about school work could spark new or more intense feelings.
- Tolerate more direct requests and instructions from adults. After having fewer demands placed on them while at home, some children may find increased adult direction frustrating or overwhelming when they first return to school.
What hurdles might your child encounter?
Difficulty with one or more of the skills listed above may present a hurdle in the transition back to school or distance learning. Some other potential hurdles in this transition could include:
- Issues with anxiety
- Difficulty with flexibility
- A history of learning challenges
- Social difficulties (e.g., perspective-taking and managing differences of opinion)
- Difficulty changing habits (e.g., bedtime routines, recreational screen time)
Change takes energy and can be challenging for many people, as human beings are creatures of habit. For some children this could be particularly difficult and may contribute to problem behaviour, such as resistance, avoidance, distraction, negotiation, or emotional meltdown. However, there are strategies that caregivers can use to minimize the likelihood of problem behaviours and to support a smooth transition.
What steps could you take to support your child to navigate these hurdles as well as possible?
It is important to think of the transition back to school as a process, not an event. Here are some strategies to help children prepare for the return to school:
Talk about the return to school openly and factually.
- Ensure that you have your child’s attention. Follow your children’s lead – answering their questions and considering their ideas as you plan for back to school. Model optimism when discussing this important topic.
- Practising the routines that will support children going back to school can help ease the transition. Consider morning, evening, and goodbye routines. For younger children, practise independent dressing and eating.
- Practise new routines so that they feel more familiar. For example, have children wear a mask for increasing lengths of time.
Point out ways to ‘read’ facial expressions when people are wearing a mask.
- Practise speaking clearly with a mask on. Review hand washing routines, perhaps picking a fun song or rhyme to repeat while washing for 20 seconds.
Help children picture themselves at school
- Consider using visual resources to help children better predict and understand what school will look like (e.g., books on return to school, school videos, school maps, visual schedules, social stories). Help children organize their materials for return to school.
Practise paying attention:
- Engage children in activities that require them to sustain attention, as opposed to screen-time activities that easily capture or maintain their attention for them. Consider activities that require mental effort, like reading, playing board games, or completing puzzles.
Adjust sleep schedules
- Make gradual adjustments in sleep-wake routines to help children prepare for school time. Teens might be more receptive to small changes (e.g., go to bed a half-hour earlier) than dramatic time shifts.
Reduce screen time
- If your child/teen has been spending a lot of time on screens, you may need to consider reducing the amount of time, as well as the time of day/night when use occurs.
- Knowing the “addictive” quality screen time has, it may be necessary to put some clear and, where necessary, stricter measures in place.
- Look for ways to make the transition more fun or engaging, such as listening to music or playing an ‘I spy’ game on the way to school. To boost a youth’s motivation to return to school work, it might be helpful to provide external incentives in the form of praise or rewards.
- For example, suggest a fun activity to be completed at the end of the school day or when school tasks are completed.
- Name and acknowledge your child’s emotions and needs (e.g, “I know how much you like to play at home and it is hard to wait until after school to do that”). When your child is calmer, provide support and encouragement to move forward (e.g., “Let’s plan what you’ll do after school!”).
- Help your child practise calming strategies, such as breathing exercises, relaxation methods, and/or coping thoughts, so they can use them when they are upset.
- It is important to remember that avoiding situations will not help children overcome anxiety. It is essential for children to learn to tolerate feeling anxious in order to participate in necessary activities, such as returning to school. Depending on your child’s level of anxiety, this may require a gradual approach.
- For further information, please refer to the following resources available on the WRDSB website: “Caregiver’s Guide to Setting the Stage for the Return to School” and “Caregiver’s Guide to Accessing Support for Students with Anxiety.”
Categories: Psychology Services