4 Conversations to Have with Your Kids Before School Starts Back

By Jessica Wolstenholm

When we were growing up, moms treated the first day back to school like a victory that deserved celebration. Sure, maybe they stopped short of wearing an “I Survived Summer with Kids” tee but mamas made their elation known. 

And we didn’t mind. We were ready to go back too—goof off with friends, settle into a routine, escape Monday-morning chores. You remember those days, right?

This year things are . . . different. 

Forget surviving summer with days lounging at the pool and afternoon barbeques that run into the night. Most of us are looking at five months and counting of a whole lotta nothing going on. And we’re facing a school year heavy on questions and uncomfortably light on answers. 

If that’s how the adults feel, imagine what it must be like for kids!

To help us prepare our kids for the upcoming changes in education, we chatted with Dr. Jeff Hine (Ph.D., BCBA), an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Child Psychologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

Read on for his insight and advice on how we can best equip our kids for the months ahead. 

Start with an Internal Dialogue

Before you broach the subject with your kids, make sure you know how you feel and what you’re going to say. 

Take some time to process your own emotions regarding the school year. 

“In uncertain situations, children often look to their parents for how to respond and how to act. It’s important for parents to check in with their own worry and stress level before talking to their kids,” Dr. Hine says. 

Maybe you’re worried about your child’s health, how you’ll handle the logistics of a hybrid school week, or what learning might look like for kids who are all wearing masks. Those are pretty normal responses to a completely abnormal time. Consider what you have control over—as well as what you don’t—and move forward accordingly. 

Voice any concerns and ask any questions privately. 

We’re in new territory. And we’ll likely find our way by helping each other out. So feel free to call a friend, email your child’s principal, or vent to your spouse. Just be sure your kids aren’t in earshot. 

You’ll want to present these changes in a positive light. If they hear you sorting through the details—frustrations and all—you’ll muddy the conversation before it even begins. And if they ask about school during this part of your process, be honest. Say, “I don’t have all the answers right now, but I’m working on it. We’re gonna make this a great year!”

Make sure your expectations are fair and reasonable. 

Many parents expect the best for their children. And who are we to discourage that? 

Nonetheless, as educators across the country scramble to determine what best looks like in the midst of a global pandemic, kids are the ones who will try these new plans on for size. So we might want to cut them a little slack. 

“These changes in routines could lead to a higher level of stress, worry, or confusion in kids. Also, kids are out of practice with going to school, so there’s going to be an adjustment time,” says Dr. Hine. 

He encourages parents to consider lowering academic expectations in the first few weeks. “Instead of focusing on kids finishing schoolwork, the initial priority should be making sure kids feel safe and are enjoying their time in school,” he explains. 

Keep these tips in mind as you engage in the following conversations. 

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4 Covid-Conversations to Have With Your Kids Before School Starts Back

You can prep your kids for the first day of school with a few simple conversations. 

1. Fill your kids in on what’s happening with school. 

During a casual moment—maybe snuggled up on the couch or driving in the car—offer up a few age-appropriate details about what your child’s educational environment will look like this year. Make sure to put a smile on your face, use a relaxed tone, and keep the conversation short. 

2. Encourage your kids to share their thoughts and feelings.

After a few days, ask your kids how they’re feeling about the new school year. Be careful not to downplay any concerns. “It’s helpful for parents to model appropriate coping skills and provide good examples for how they want their children to respond to uncertainty and stressful situations,” says Dr. Hine. 

He suggests talking through the situation from your own point of view: “You might say ‘Mommy gets a little nervous about wearing a mask sometimes too. So when I wear one, I always look around for what’s familiar, ask for help when I need it and make sure to take deep breaths if I start to feel worried.’”

3. Roleplay the major changes your kids will encounter. 

Dr. Hine encourages parents to talk through and then roleplay scenarios like social distancing, temperature checks, and wearing masks around the home so their comfort levels are up when they encounter these changes at school. 

“Kids thrive on routine and predictability. Unfortunately, during these challenging times, we may not know the new routine and things aren’t predictable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t practice at home to add a small measure of predictability,” he says.

4. Strategize together for the first day of school. 

When it comes to preparation, Dr. Hine encourages a practical approach:

“Parents and kids can work together to create buzz words and visuals that serve as reminders for the new routines and coping strategies they’ve practiced as a family. They can also make a list describing what will be the same and what will be different at school, including friends who may or may not be attending.” 

He also suggests coming up with a positive reinforcement plan for kids who follow the new procedures—especially when they do so with a good attitude. 

In those first few weeks after they return to the classroom, when your kids walk in from school, be quick to offer up a hug, a snack, and a listening ear. And try to avoid asking too many questions about the changes. 

“As they start this new routine, it will be helpful to have children list a few great moments from the day or areas where they had success before attempting to dig into what worried them or what didn’t go well,” says Dr. Hine. 

And then, when they share good news, heap on the praise.