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Coping With Uncertainty About School

2020-07-16 by Dr. Jenny
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No one knows yet what school is going to look like in the fall, and this uncertainty can be really tough for kids (and parents).

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released guidelines for how schools can reopen safely, there are a lot of missing pieces of the puzzle. Will schools reopen if cases are still rising? How will schools get enough supplies and space and teachers to carry this out well?

I can’t answer all of these questions, but I can offer a few ideas for coping with uncertainty.

Remember, as a parent, if you express a lot of anxiety about what school will look like in the fall, your child will internalize this process as scary, and it may make the transition to school a lot harder. So try to save some of your conversations with partners or friends for times when the kids are asleep or otherwise occupied.

It’s also wise to not spend too much time online or on social media “doom-scrolling” about all the worst-case scenarios. Think about a few options of what the fall might look like, and keep a flexible mindset so that you can adapt as the time approaches.

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5 Ways to Deal With School Stress

By now, a lot of us are used to the fact that things are going to change every day (kinda like parenting young kids!), but here are a few stable, positive things to focus on:

  1. Talk about what is certain.
    That you love each other. That you have discovered some amazing things about yourselves by being stuck at home together for 4 months. What are your sources of resilience, that make you proud to be part of your family? How have you coped with feelings of loss, sadness, or anger? Remind your child that we carry these strengths in our hearts, and they can access them every day.
  2. When you have decisions to make, talk about risk-benefit balance.
    Decisions such as taking vacations, seeing loved ones, or rejoining classmates all have risks and benefits. The benefits of being around friends and a school community are enormous — socially, emotionally, and academically (especially because distance learning is hard for younger and differently-abled kids). A lot of us have learned how screens and apps don’t come close to the experience of being in a classroom. If cases are low in your community, these benefits outweigh the low risks of virus exposure.
  3. Imagine the different options of how school might feel.
    Ask your child: What should school look like in the fall? How could they make social distancing fun or silly? What parts of pandemic-schooling make them anxious, and what creative things would they invent to make things safer? Even just giving your child the chance to use their imagination about unknowns and could-be’s may help them feel in more control. It also gives you a window into their worries and coping skills.
  4. Allow your child to express their anxiety or anger about the unknowns.
    You may discover some surprising fears that you can easily reassure them about, or some new approaches for coping. Remember that many kids can’t express in words the emotions they can channel through play, music, art, or kind acts.
  5. Focus on the now.
    When you can’t control something that will be in the future, and worrying about it is just feeding anxiety, try to get your child re-focused on the now. You can do this through their senses, nature, or day-by-day goals to do kind things for others. I’ve had my boys writing postcards to loved ones they can’t see — it helps them express things that might not come out over video chat.

I wish I had more specific guidance or a magic bullet to give you more certainty, but parents have never been through this before! Hang in there, and know that we are all growing in ways that we hopefully will appreciate when we’re looking back at this in several years.

More resources:
How to Make Outdoor Play a Priority This Summer
Are Playdates Safe?
Seeing More Defiance? Play Can Help!

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.

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Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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