Return to school looks different

Back to School Checklist for Parents

by Erin Papworth | 18 August 2020

It’s almost comical to say we’re getting into back to school season right now.  Yet in some shape or form school is going to start for many of us within a month. In truth, I feel a lingering trepidation. Less about viral transmission and more about creating a healthy and productive learning environment for my rising 4th grader. 

Will the environment be conducive to ideal learning for him? How will he socialize with friends and how will his teacher get to know him and his learning style behind a plexiglass wall?  Will they be able to do the project-based learning he loves?

For those going back online these questions may run even deeper.  My spring was a crazy juggernaut of managing work responsibilities, ensuring he continued to learn, creating healthy socially-distanced social environments and physical activity (when we were allowed), and maintaining a healthy mental space for myself.  As if we can do it all. You can imagine not all boxes were checked all the time. 

So now, we get to do it all over again.

Here are my top 5 priorities to stay sane and adapt to this new back to school season:

1. Prioritize cognitive health:

I definitely realized quickly last year that I had to put my safety belt on first.  The first thing I did was start an end-of-day meditation practice. I found some awesome free guided meditations on youtube, made myself a playlist and happily realigned my chakras as I fell into a deep sleep. While I joke a little, I’m not kidding that my sleep was deeper and healthier than it had been last year and I was falling asleep faster. I noticed it calmed me so I started playing a longer one with just calming music for my little one and in the middle of those dark months, when he hadn’t seen friends and could really only bike ride for exercise, it definitely helped him relax at night too. 

One of the strategies for coping with Covid 19 and back to school is prioritizing cognitive or mental health for yourself and your child.

2. Create an inner circle:

This completely depends on your level of risk tolerance and how you do with routine. I am not one to thrive with routine and I learned I do crave social interaction at least twice a week. So when our governor opened up social events with 5 or less people, we created an inner circle of friends that agreed on the same behavior, to be proactively communicative about exposure risks, and to meet in nature at parks or for bike rides. This little pod truly saved my sanity and it became a support network for the parents, as well as an important social and behavioral outlet for the kids.

Social and Behavioral Adaptation and Growth…

While my son’s friend group was significantly reduced, he had to figure out how to get along with the same kids for an extended period of time and navigate the different personalities in intimate ways. It taught conflict resolutions, forgiveness and created a beautiful sibling-esque relationship between all of them. I hope he looks back on this time and at least remembers fun moments in nature learning to navigate hard times with friends. 

3. Delegate:

Can you delegate some of your kids’ learning? People spend many years in school becoming specialized teachers. Acknowledging that educating your kids might be a skill set others have more of can also free you from guilt when you’re frustrated. Also, if you already have a full time job, you are now taking on a second and that’s just not sustainable.

I know many parents created learning pods with younger children and hired out of work preschool teaching assistants or new education grads. As a single mom trying to grow a budding business, I cried for a week as I printed out homework assignments and tried to show him division with my video off and muted on zoom. Clearly that wasn’t sustainable and that meant I had to figure out an alternative quickly.

Physical exercise is a mood lifter and important to maintaining physical and emotional wellness during Covid-19.

Finding Support

My lovely parents came up to help for a week to give me time to find someone to help.  It was a lot of luck that a family friend of ours just moved to Seattle and his job prospects had fallen through because of COVID. He was able to come in three days a week and keep my little one on top of the work. At the same, he created stability and structure. They also had epic nerf guns fights during “recess” that our neighbors recently commented they enjoyed spectating.

Now, I acknowledge, finding help is hard but so many of us are in the same position, are there any friends or family that can support you right now? Can you share childcare costs? Can you create a pod? If there is ever a time to believe ‘it takes a village to raise healthy kids’, it’s now.

And with regard to your work: Plan ahead and communicate openly.

If you’re going in-person, it’s very likely the minute your kid has a sniffle, s/he will need to stay home. Do you have a back up plan? How flexible is your company in supporting parents of sick kids? Do you have a good HR department you can speak with to understand their expectations?  Contingency planning is key.

4. Stay Vigilant:

If you’re going back in-person, stay vigilant and adhere to protocols. Our school is going back in-person. They have created strict guidelines and protocols while in school but are also taking the steps to make suggestions for outside school behavior.  Things like: adhere to social distancing and masks, try to stay in social pods (ideally with kids from the school), and be thoughtful about the risks you’re taking out of school. While some people balk at schools impinging on their freedom, I am personally heartened to know they are prioritizing my child’s safety, as well as my families. I am willing to pay attention to the protocols, and adapt if they need to change them, to ensure my family and my community stay safe.

5. Have Something to look forward to:

One month into shut down, I realized I needed to do something about my kids attitude. By April, when the shut down seemed imminent for the next three months of school and the drudgery of everyday started to REALLY get to him (and me), I realized he needed to have something to inspire him, something to look forward to, and something to keep his mind on better times to come. I also wanted him to step up his ‘hard work’ game, so I started a ‘attitude chart’ every day.  If he could get a 7 or above out of 10 every day for the next three months, he would earn the video game he’d been begging me for two years.  At the end of each day he would self-assess and tell me his grade and then I (or our friend) would agree or edit and note the behavior that contributed to the grade.

Wow, did that motivate him! The two days after we implemented it he got a stellar 9 and even started to earn extra points by loading the dishwasher after dinner each night. Now, obviously, that level of effort was not sustainable, but giving him a goal and self-awareness about his attitude and behavior was an awesome way to keep him oriented on something he could control (I wish I had thought of this before!). It also subconsciously told him this crazy moment in his life would be ‘over’ at some point soon – though ‘over’ is a bit relative now.

 I’m still deciding what incentive to create to get us through December, if you have any suggestions, let me know

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