How to Prepare Children for Going Back to School During COVID-19

Elaine Conrad

back to school, children, parents, COVID-19, self-care, mental health

Many children are about to go back to school after months of being at home with only parents and siblings to socialize and learn with. Each province and state has their own standards for what constitutes safety regarding COVID-19. A new way of socializing including staggered days and extended recess and outdoor times are just some of the ideas that have been suggested. With the abundance of social media and advertisements regarding concerns and recommendations surrounding the spread of COVID-19, adults and children may also be facing anxiety around going back to school.

How can you prepare your child to return to the new normal as they go back to school this fall? Here are five tips to help get you and your child ready and minimize those anxious thoughts around going back to school:

Only share the necessary facts

As parents, it is important to only share the facts that will keep your child safe. Simply put, communicate only what is needed and keep it age-appropriate because too much information may cause unintended anxiety. The younger the child, the less information they need. For example, it’s not necessary or helpful for a five-year-old to watch or hear all the gory details of death tolls around the world.

If children are going to feel that they can play with their classmates in a safe way, they need the facts that are pertinent to their situation – not the fear that comes from world statistics. This includes things like proper handwashing and mask hygiene, practicing physical distancing (personal space), and understanding how others would like to be treated (empathy).

Practice COVID-19 protocols at home

Practice common COVID-19 safety measures with your children at home so they are not embarrassed or surprised when they come up at school. For example, they will be required to wash/sanitize their hands upon entering the school or classroom. Set up a handwashing sign at your front door or at the entrance to the kitchen for practice.

Depending on district rules, children may be required to wear masks for all or part of the day. To reduce anxiety and stigma surrounding this, have your child practice wearing a mask for short periods of time at home while doing something they enjoy. Increase the time they wear the mask incrementally until they are up to a timeframe that the school has set out.

Practice common COVID-19 safety measures with your children at home so they are not embarrassed or surprised when they come up at school.

Reinforce boundaries

Teaching children a common social norm such as keeping their hands to themselves when playing with others is not unique to COVID-19. We can explain this as a way of saying it’s important to respect other people’s space just like we would want them to respect ours. We can use language like, “Sometimes you just want to have your own space. Not everyone likes to be hugged or pulled along somewhere.” Letting your child know that this practice also helps reduce the spread of the common cold and flu is helpful too. Practicing a personal space bubble is something that can be taught quite early on.

Practice empathy with your child

One way to teach empathy would be explaining that there may be friends who are still a bit wary of hanging out the way they used to. Remind them of a time when they had a hard time warming up to a new situation so they can empathize with their friend. Do this before they go back to school so that they will not be surprised if a friend does not want to play right away.

Also part of showing empathy is discussing why some cannot wear masks (e.g., asthma or other concerns that make it difficult to use a mask). Practice the language involved in seeing someone without a mask so they are ready if that does happen: “Some people are unable to wear masks for different reasons. We should remember be kind to everyone.”

Communicate only what is needed and keep it age appropriate because too much information may cause unintended anxiety.

Chart the course

Create a chart of things that are okay and not okay to do. Make it realistic so that children understand that they’ve lost the ability to do some things while their ability to do others remains the same – this helps build resilience. For example, it was never a good idea to share food or drinks with friends, so that goes in the “Not Okay” column. Having a meal with your friends (in an acceptable place as outlined by health guidelines) goes in the “Okay” column. While we don’t want children to be afraid of their peers, we do want to teach them to be aware of the need for proper hygiene and safe distancing to reduce the spread of all airborne viruses.

These five tips will help counteract the negative messages around COVID-19 children may have already heard before going back to school. Remind them of the positives that have occurred (and will continue to occur) such as increased downtime and more family time and meals together as parents continue to work from home. Turn towards the positives that have come from the pandemic and take the opportunity help change the negative narrative around going back to school into a positive one.


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Author: Elaine Conrad (MEd, RP)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute.
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