Parents of young children are facing two scenarios this fall and possibly throughout the school year. In some parts of the country and in some circumstances, schools are reopening, and children are returning to campus and the classrooms they abruptly left more than six months ago. In much of the country, “return to school” means returning to some form of distance learning – either full time or embedded in a hybrid model of recurring cycles of traditional school and online instruction. School districts and individual teachers have learned a lot and adapted quickly since our public health emergency prompted school closures last March, so the rollout and implementation of online models will likely be smoother and more sophisticated. That said, school will look different for a while, and there are many things that parents can do to help their children navigate the differences.

Minimize morning drama. Build a lifelong habit!

Most “return to campus” models include modifications to classroom seating, fewer opportunities for children to move around during the day and interact in “centers” and small groups, and new health and safety practices that take some getting used to. Preparing for school in the morning will likely take more time and this is something that parents can help manage. Under normal circumstances, morning prep for school can be hectic, even stressful, as children are coaxed through the routine of breakfast, grooming and gathering school supplies. Added to that are new routines, among them retrieving face masks, packing hand sanitizer, filling water bottles, checking temperatures for fever, and locating and signing the latest set of signed school documents!

  • Getting ready for school will take more time this year, but it doesn’t have to be more stressful. Manage the added workload by getting as much done the night before. Begin asking your child to make/assemble his/her own lunch or clean his backpack, returning to it only what he needs for the next day.
  • Create a staging area in the house where everything that needs to go to school the next morning – backpack, art project, umbrella, filled water bottle, permission slips, 2 clean face masks – is staging areas before bedtime, ready to grab on the way out the door.
  • Create a bedtime ritual of populating the staging area in preparation for the next day.

Music, Art, Team Sports, Competition

Even schools that can open this fall will not be able to accommodate programs and practices that were always good for children – including performing arts and organized sports. Both are ensemble/team endeavors, and each builds skills and habits of mind not emphasized in other areas of school.

  • Encourage your child to learn or continue practicing a musical instrument, working with an instructor who can teach online. (I have known kids who have learned to play an instrument just by watching how-to YouTube videos!)
  • Team sports is a good physical activity. Additionally, little athletes learn “game sense” and develop skills such as how to compete, how to win and lose; how to lead, follow, and control emotions; they learn sportsmanship and empathy. Sports are good for kids.
  • In the absence of organized sports, youngsters can fulfill the “activity” piece with daily exercise, inside or outside. Biking, hiking, roller skating and running are all great choices during a pandemic.
  • Encourage your child to consider any number of competitive activities that can be accessed online. Mathcounts, a club at many schools, has an online presence and activities for children. National Geographic sponsors online competitions. There are online art, STEM, chess and creative writing competitions. This is an entirely healthy way to be part of an online community, as well.
  • For modern kids, what’s old can be new, so bring out board games and decks of cards and join the fun of returning to Candyland or Scrabble. Many schools are hosting after-school and fully online clubs.

“Maslow before Bloom”

One hears this expression a lot in education circles, as most teachers are quite familiar with the work of Benjamin Bloom and Abraham Maslow. Psychologist contemporaries, Bloom and Maslow developed frameworks to describe human understanding, but from different angles. Bloom’s taxonomy describes learning goals, including knowledge, comprehension, and understanding. Maslow describes a hierarchy of needs – physical and psychological –including safety, belonging, love and esteem. “Maslow before Bloom” implies that basic human needs need to be addressed before learning can occur. Children need to be fed, feel safe, cared for, and loved before they can advance through Bloom’s learning domains. They will only begin learning when they feel protected and loved in their sanitized classrooms and online communities.

As we embark upon this school year, “Maslow before Bloom” should be every teacher’s and parent’s mantra. Whether children are returning to school buildings and friends they haven’t seen for six months or embarking on a year of distance learning with a teacher they haven’t yet met, the first order of business should be building comfort and trust. Trust-building should be a first-day priority and developed throughout the year.

When children were dropped into distance learning several months ago, classmates already knew each other and trusted their teacher. This year, millions of children and teachers will be introduced and get to know each other across screens. There is so much that parents can do to help their children feel safe and connected to their school communities.

  • Early in the school year, reach out to your child’s teacher and introduce yourself and your family. Share family stories, values, your family’s living situation this fall, your child’s feelings about the return to school. Will you be working from home this year? Is there a quiet space for your child to work this school year, or is that always going to be a challenge?
  • Given that you were almost certainly your young child’s second teacher last spring, share what you learned about how he/she learns. What excited your child, what was motivating or challenging? Ask your child’s teacher how you can help reinforce social and emotional learning goals he/she is promoting in the classroom.
  • In the best schools, teachers and parents partner and reinforce each other, and that has never been more important than now. Even if your child is able to return to campus during the day, organized after-school programs will probably be eliminated, meaning, once again, you will be spending more time filling in the gaps, being a second teacher. You and your child’s teacher can learn from each other and that amplification of learning benefits your child.