Coming Out of COVID-19: Preparing to Return to In-Person School and Activities

By Julia Martin Burch, Ph.D., Reprinted from Magination Press Family 

“Getting back to normal” is something most of us have been looking forward to. It sounds great in the abstract, but actually returning to in-person activities after experiencing a year of  COVID-19 social distancing could be stressful. Dr. Julia Martin Burch shares insights and tips to ease your child’s transition back to in-person activities.

As vaccines roll out across the world, children are preparing for the return to in-person activities, including school, extra-curriculars, large family gatherings, and play dates, among many others. For many kids, this will be a welcome change as a return in-person activities means fun playing with friends, easier learning, and well-known routines and traditions. Yet the return to in-person activities- particularly mandatory school- also brings a host of worries and uncertainties for children and parents alike. In particular, many introverted or anxious kids have come to feel more comfortable staying home during the pandemic and have had few opportunities to practice getting out of their comfort zone. It is crucial to help all kids prepare for the return to in-person activities but is particularly important for kids whose shy or anxious temperament may make this a particularly big shift. Luckily, parents and caretakers can do much to help prepare kids for the upcoming changes.

Re-establish routines

Children thrive with predictable routines and feel empowered when they know what to expect. Several weeks before your child’s activity starts again in person, get them ready. For example, to help your child prepare for a return to in-person school, start to slowly shift your child’s morning schedule. This can include gradually waking up earlier to allow for time to get dressed in a school-friendly outfit, eat breakfast, and have time to get to school. 

Consider introducing some grounding, calming rituals into the day to help your child (and yourself!) stay emotionally strong and resilient during the upcoming period of transition. For example, you and your child can make a habit of taking 5 deep breaths before sitting down to breakfast, enjoying a quick stretch before commuting to school, or discussing your “high lights” and “low lights” of the day at dinner each evening. Calming rituals do not have to take much time or effort, but offer a predictable opportunity for kids to slow down and ground themselves in a familiar, comforting routine each day. 

It’s also helpful to review your community’s safety policies with your child well in advance and practice the steps they may be less familiar with. For example, you can make a game at home of estimating how many feet of distance are between you and your child. It is also helpful to practice wearing masks for longer and longer periods so they are used to it before returning to activities where they will need to be masked full time. 

Talk about it

Well intended parents often avoid bringing up topics that they worry will make their child anxious. However, an open conversation gives kids a chance to air their concerns and get answers to their questions, rather than letting their imaginations run wild (and often come up with worst case scenarios!). It also gives parents an opportunity to better understand their child’s concerns – as well as to often learn that their child is less anxious than the parent thought! 

Start these conversations with your child several weeks before the return to the in-person activity. Ask what they are looking forward to about the return and if they have any questions. Try not to ask leading questions like “what do you feel anxious about?”, but instead make room for them to share their feelings. When they ask questions or share concerns, validate their emotions and answer their questions in an age-appropriate way. For example, you might say “It sounds like you’re feeling nervous about finding your classroom. We can practice finding it together next week at the school’s welcome back day. There will also be teachers to help you when school starts.”

Make a plan to face fears

Once you know what your child is feeling anxious about, you can make a plan to help them prepare. The most effective way to approach a feared situation is to break it into smaller steps. For example, if your child is worried about going back into the school building, you can start with driving by the school. They can then work up to sitting in the parking lot, walking up to the front door, standing in the lobby for a few minutes, walking by their classroom, and so on. By gradually increasing their time in the school, your child gets a chance to learn that returning is not as hard as they feared, and that they are able to handle the anxious feelings that do come up. 

No matter what your child is worried about, it is helpful to take advantage of opportunities to practice doing things in person ahead of formal activities re-starting. For example, you might schedule simple social gatherings with kids they will see at school and go to school events such as re-orientations and welcome back days. Your child might want to talk with friends they are going to see in person via video chat, like Zoom, so they can reconnect before seeing each other at school.

Consider asking your school’s mental health staff about opportunities for your child to meet them before school resumes to have an additional friendly face in the building. If your child is particularly anxious, it is helpful to alert school mental health staff to this ahead of time and to collaboratively develop a coping plan for your child.

Encourage helpful ‘self talk’

When kids feel anxious, they often say things to themselves that only make them feel worse such as “I can’t handle this” or “this is too scary.” Teach your child to talk to themselves in ways that make them feel brave and empowered. It can be helpful to ask what they would say to a scared friend to help them feel better. You can also discuss brave characters in books or movies and think about what they might say in a tough situation. Phrases like “this is hard, but I am brave and can do hard things” and “anxiety can’t boss me around!” are great places to start. 

Be a courage coach

Watching your anxious child return to in-person activities can be even more nerve-wracking for parents than for the child themselves! Yet, no matter how you feel about the changes, project calm confidence in front of your child. Kids pick up on their parents’ emotions. You can do much to soothe their nerves by showing and expressing your confidence in their ability to handle the situation. Make sure you are taking care of your own emotions and charging your own battery so that you can be available to them through this transition. 

The last year has been a marathon for parents. Though the return to in-person activities brings a host of new uncertainties, it also represents an exciting transition towards normalcy for children. By taking these small steps, you can do much to support your child in navigating these upcoming changes. 

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