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How to prepare yourself and your kids for school in the fall

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

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Recently, my sessions with clients are full of questions and stress about the return to school decision. Should our kids go or should they stay home?

In today’s blog, I’ve outlined some methods for making a decision regarding whether to return to in-person school or choose to homeschool in the fall. I also provide guidance regarding managing the stress of this big decision. I hope it’s helpful to you for making an informed and aligned choice.

Explore options and gather information

When you’re making a big decision of any kind, it’s important to gather all of the necessary information so you can have a clear picture of the options available to you.

Before anything else, ask yourself if it is possible to arrange your life for your child(ren) to be home next year. If your job(s) don’t allow for this, then your choice is what it is. You likely need to work and make money.

If you do have the option to homeschool your children, you’ll want to answer some of these questions. What are the current cases in your area? This is obviously changing daily and will have to be examined on an ongoing basis. How are the government, school board and the school handling the COVID-19 situation? Will there be appropriate measures taken with regard to keeping children safe? Is there funding for these measures?

Recently, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, in conjunction with the Alberta government, announced the beginning of the return-to-school plans. Some highlights are mandatory masks for all children and staff, hand sanitizer will be available in some locations at school and there will be a certain amount of cohorting of classes and staggering of breaks. More will be announced over the coming weeks.

It’s important to be realistic about what can be done with regard to masking, hand washing and physical distancing in schools. Let’s be real…many kids are not particularly good at these things. Schools are not set up for 6 ft distances between children and it’s not likely that government funding be sufficient to have optimal circumstances. Keep that in mind as you make your decision.

Consider the health of you and your loved ones. Do you have people who are at higher-risk for severe outcomes of COVID-19 in your household? What about in your cohort bubble? This should be a factor in your decision-making for returning to school.

In addition to considering the physical concerns of the coronavirus, it’s important to consider your mental health and the mental health of your children. Think about how it went when you homeschooled last semester and be honest with yourself if you’re up to this task. Can you manage the usual activities of your day plus taking care of your children and homeschooling? Bear in mind that the workload for homeschooling will likely be heavier this fall, as it will be a typical school year as opposed to a last-minute covering of the basics.

Consider where your child is at emotionally speaking with regard to the COVID-19 situation and anxiety. There are many kids who are struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings about returning to school. Let’s be real…there are many adults struggling with this too!

Generally speaking, psychologists don’t recommend avoiding something because you’re anxious about it. However, in this situation, there are real risks to returning, so your anxiety is a reasonable response and the best option is not clear.

Allow your child to talk about their feelings and give them some strategies to manage their stress, such as deep breathing, simple meditation strategies and positive self-statements (for example, feeling afraid is OK and normal or I will use my strategies to calm my body and mind). Consider their mental health when making your choice and what might be best for them as the unique person they are.

Now I want you to consider the personality of your child. Is your child an extrovert? How would they do being at home when they’re aware that many other children are at school together? I know for my husband and me, this was one of the biggest factors in deciding to send our children to school. Our kids are very friendship-oriented and although they did well last year being at home, they knew that their friends were all at home too. This year, if they knew their friends were at school and they were not, it would be exceptionally hard on their mental health.

Finally, it can make sense to involve your children in the discussion. Each child is different and this is also age-dependent, but children have their own opinions about this situation too. Touch base with your child to see what their choice is about returning to school, letting them know that this will ultimately have to be an adult choice. Take their opinion into consideration when you’re making your choice and keep the lines of communication open.

If you’re really feeling that you want to homeschool, but you’re not sure how to swing it with your circumstances, consider if you can think outside the box a little bit. For instance, perhaps you can cohort with another family and take turns with homeschooling tasks around your work schedules.

Making your decision

After gathering your data, now it’s time to discuss options with your spouse or co-parent. Be open to hearing their opinion and be ready to express yours. Allow the conversation to unfold and fingers crossed, you’re both on the same page (or close to it).

If you and your partner are not in agreement, make a pact to be truly open to hearing the other’s point of view. As you speak and discuss, imagine it’s like a ping-pong game with discussion back and forth, back and forth. Don’t spend the time they’re speaking formulating your point, but instead, hear what they’re saying and perhaps even try to agree with some aspect of their opinion. This will foster goodwill and help the conversation to stay productive.

At some point, you’ll come to a decision together. If you can’t, it might make sense to speak to a couples’ counsellor about the topic for communication support from a neutral 3rd party.

Once you’ve made your choice, be open to adjusting it as things change and the situation unfolds.

Release all judgment

One thing that’s been fairly prominent all throughout the coronavirus situation is the judgment that’s being thrown around. Whether it’s masked, working out of the home, kids socializing, social distancing or criticizing the government, there’s been no shortage of opinions.

There’s nothing wrong with having an informed opinion and expressing it along with your plan, but please don’t get wrapped up in trying to change other people’s minds. You don’t have control over others’ decisions so don’t waste your precious time and energy trying to do so.

Let’s allow each family to do what is right for them with regard to the school situation, without fear of judgment from others.

Begin discussing what is going to happen

Now it’s time to discuss with your children what your plan is. Talk to them about how school might be different and make sure they are aware that the situation is evolving and might change.

Try to keep the back-to-school routine the same as much as you can. If you usually enjoy a fun shopping trip with the kids to get a new outfit and the school supplies, keep that routine going. If you’re limiting shopping outside the home, set up a time to sit down together and shop online. Kids thrive in routines and 2020 has really thrown off many of our usual ones. This is one you can still do and it will comfort your child to have the normalcy of it.

Acknowledge the feelings

Emotions might be running high with the school year returning and it might be you, your partner or your kids that are stressed out. Perhaps it’s all of you. It’s important to allow everyone to feel what they’re feeling and to have some healthy outlets for their emotions.

If you need it, schedule in some quiet reflection time to allow space and time to feel your feelings. It might make sense to journal about it and you might also benefit from talking with a trusted friend, partner or therapist.

If it’s your partner or children that are struggling, offer to be a sounding board for their troubles. Acknowledge how they’re feeling without trying to fix it or downplaying it. Comments like, “yes, I can understand why you’re worried” are helpful.

If it’s your child who is worried and acknowledging their feelings and talking does not seem to be enough, you might want to consider getting them in to speak to a psychologist before the school year starts. This way, they can be prepared and ahead of the game. If you’re in Alberta, Dr. Lana Hawkins would be happy to work with your child, if needed.

Expect the unexpected and prepare a little (not a lot)

You’ve made the decision. You’ve spoken to your kids about it. You’re feeling decently good about it.

One thing I notice in people, in general, is that most of us are inclined to second-guess our choices.

We make a decision and then go back and forth about whether it’s good or not. I highly recommend not doing that, as it’s a waste of your time and energy and usually makes no difference in the final outcome.

Typically, I recommend weighing options, checking in with facts and your intuitive sense and then making a decision. Let go of the back and forth and just follow through with your choice.

In this situation, however, the situation keeps changing, so it does make sense to allow for some flexibility and adjustment.

What is your plan if a major outbreak happens? What would you do if you or a member of your family gets sick? It makes sense to have some tentative plans for these possibilities.

Don’t get stuck in contingency planning. Make a backup plan and then stay flexible and open.

Accept that which we cannot change

Since March 2020, we’ve all had to get used to change, disruption of our lives and plans and a whole truckload of uncertainty.

We psychologists often see what we refer to as “intolerance of uncertainty.” Essentially, this means that you have a hard time sitting with the unknown and end up worrying a lot about the “what if’s.” Right now, there are a lot of potential unknowns. What if my loved one dies? What if my kids fall behind in school? What if they don’t achieve their goals? What if the world is never the same? What if I lose my job? What if I can’t pay my bills?

We can work ourselves into a tizzy with these questions and get ourselves nowhere. Here’s what I recommend.

Ask yourself, what do I have control over? Some examples would be, handwashing, masking, distancing when possible, staying home more often and staying reasonably informed about best practices with COVID-19. We also have control over teaching our children about these concepts and doing what we can to support them in following the safety guidelines. We have control over our own choices with regard to a return to school. We can provide love and support to our family. We can work hard at our jobs.

We don’t have control over so many things, so do the best you can to surrender to this reality. Remind yourself of the adage:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

I hope that this article has helped you in making an informed choice regarding the return to school, aligned with your own personal values, mental and physical health and beliefs.

I’d love it if you could comment below with your decision about returning to school. Remember, this is a judgment-free zone and critical comments will be immediately removed. Please feel comfortable speaking your truth!

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