Learn how to prepare your child academically, socially, and emotionally for a return to school in 2021

As we head into the 2021-2022 school year, fragments of uncertainty remain from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thoughts about children’s physical health and safety, such as germ transmission and mask wearing, are blending with concerns about how to prepare children academically, socially, and emotionally for a return to school in 2021.

Below are four suggested areas where parents and caregivers can help prepare a young child for the return to the school year in 2021:

Address nervous feelings

After over a year of spending more time than ever at home, young children (and adults!) may have some nervous or anxious feelings about spending time apart as school resumes. Separation anxiety is a typical part of child development in infants and toddlers, but may become more acute this fall as children navigate returning to child care and school after a very irregular school year in 2020-2021.

To reduce separation anxiety

Validate the nerves and set a positive tone. Don’t dismiss your child’s anxiety, but instead, allow your child time and space to express their feelings. Be honest and encouraging about your own feelings, while also setting a positive tone about the future. Say, “Being apart is tricky and I’m going to miss you, too. I’m really proud of you for going to school. What’s something you are looking forward to doing in your classroom?” or “I’ve loved all the time we’ve spent together this year and I feel a little sad that it’s coming to an end. At the same time, I’m really excited for the new things we’re both going to learn and do this year!”

Practice separating. Start by having your child spend time in a different room of your home for a period of time, and work up to leaving your child with another trusted caregiver while you leave the house. Be clear about where you are going and how long you will be gone, and return when you say you will. Discuss with your children, and role play, what they can expect to happen during the school day after you leave. This practice and conversation will build trust with your child for when the longer separation of the school day happens in the fall.

Establish a beloved goodbye ritual. Create a separation ritual, such as two hugs and a kiss on each cheek or giving your child a special saying, such as “See you later, alligator!” If consistently used, this ritual signals to your child that you are separating, but they are safe and loved. Do not reinforce any potential nervousness by expressing worry at drop off. A confident and loving good-bye will help your child feel safe and know you believe they will be OK.

Separation anxiety is a typical part of child development in infants and toddlers, but may become more acute this fall as children navigate returning to child care and school after a very irregular school year in 2020-2021.

Encourage school readiness skills

After a year of very irregular school, many parents are wondering if their child is behind academically and socially. Was there learning loss? How will my child know how to make friends after a year of isolation?

There was certainly a loss of classroom time last school year, but learning never stopped for children. There was a loss in learning time, not a loss of learning itself. Children need to be able to gain knowledge and synthesize information, but to be successful someday, children also need the life skills they have been working on throughout the pandemic, such as collaboration, perspective taking, negotiation, flexible thinking, empathy, and creative problem solving.

There were also missed opportunities for social development during the pandemic and parents may be concerned about children remembering how to navigate friendships when they return to school. Remember that children have still been socializing this year! They socialize each day with the other people in their home. There is give and take, back and forth, accommodating each other, reading cues, and playing together. Remind yourself that there has not been a complete absence of learning social skills, it has just looked different this past year.

School separation anxiety

Tips for school readiness

Play. Allowing your child time for both structured and unstructured play (including outdoor play) provides an opportunity for children to practice literacy, math, problem solving, emotional regulation, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

Encourage responsibility and independence. Children will feel more confident and comfortable showing up for school if they are able to do a few things on their own, such as put on their coat/shoes, or open their own food container. Other ways to promote independence include having your child complete simple household chores or chip away at a longer-term task, such as a jigsaw puzzle or gardening project.

Work on strengthening executive function skills for children to use in their classrooms this fall. Executive function skills are the skills that set children up for successful learning and there are many ways to work on these at home. These skills include things like being able to remember and use bits of information, the ability to master impulses, stay focused, and think before acting, and the capacity to switch gears and adjust.

Explore math and literacy concepts. Younger children best learn the early academic concepts of math and reading/writing when they are naturally woven throughout the day. Let go of the notion that education only happens in a structured, formal classroom setting and notice the learning opportunities in your everyday routines. Making breakfast, reading bedtime stories, or walking around the block are all opportunities to build vocabulary, sequence, counting, sorting skills.

Ask your child open-ended questions to promote more complex thinking and language skills. Examples include:

“What do you think will happen next?”

“What were you thinking when you did it that way?”

“What do you notice?”

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