How to Talk to Younger Kids About Changes at School During COVID-19

If your child is returning to the classroom this fall, it’ll be even more of an adjustment than usual.

How do you talk to younger kids about big changes at school in a way that makes them feel safe and supported?

Developmental pediatrician Robert D. Keder, MD, shares these steps and some general tips.

1. Check in with yourself.

Before you sit down to talk to your child about the new school year, pause to prepare. Here are tips.

2. Gather information.

Look to your child’s school for specifics about new rules, so you can help your child understand what to expect – like masks, desk spacing and sticking to the same groups. Think ahead to anticipate answers to your child’s questions. For example, you might want to go over how germs spread as a way to help them understand new rules.

3. Figure out what your child already knows and what/how they understand it.

Build on what they already know. Be ready to help them clarify any misconceptions they might have. If your child understands the reason schools closed in the spring, start there when you talk about why certain things will be different this fall. If you’ve been practicing wearing masks out in the neighborhood, use that to talk about wearing masks at school.

Review these tips for what to practice now to get ready for school during COVID-19.

4. Make sure your child feels safe.

Look for cues that your child might be worried. If they seem scared of getting sick at school, take time to talk about their specific fears. You might be able to reassure them by explaining how some of the changes at school will help, and reminding them of the ways that they’re in control of their own health too – like washing their hands a lot and wearing a mask.

5. Validate and normalize your child’s feelings.

Your child may have an emotional reaction when they learn they’ll be going back to the classroom (or not), or hear that things will be different than they expected. It’s comforting for them to know they’re being heard, and that their feelings are normal.

Try reflecting back what your child is telling you with nonjudgmental statements – for example, “You sound upset,” or “It must be frustrating to have to be back in a classroom after so much time at home” – and let them know that it’s OK to cry or be angry.

6. Help your child work through their feelings.

Help your child put their feelings into words by asking open-ended question, like what they’re looking forward to when school starts again, or what they think will be the most difficult change. Encourage them to express their feelings in whatever way feels most comfortable, whether through talking, journaling, art, music, dance or playing with a favorite toy.

7. Double check their understanding.

Ask your child to explain back to you what’s going to happen. It can take a while for new messages to sink in, and younger children often think they understand something even if they don’t. When the moment seems right, invite your child to explain back to you what may be different at school this fall, and why.

Where do they think they’ll sit? What will lunchtime be like? When will they take their masks off? Listen closely for areas of confusion, so you can clear up any misunderstandings. If they’re confused, plan on starting the conversation again when the time is right.

Other helpful tips!

Encourage young kids to be “health helpers.”

Give your child a positive lens for redirecting their emotions. Young kids like to be helpers, so you might talk about how following new rules – like wearing masks, or having more online classes – makes them health heroes for other people in the community.

Make it fun and keep it simple.

If you’re talking about the importance of handwashing at school, make up a silly song for your child to sing to make sure they scrub for long enough. If you’re talking about masks, try one of these techniques to make your child comfortable.

Be patient with your child.

The start of a new school year is a big transition for kids, and that’s especially true this year. Be patient with your child, and yourself. And reach out to your child’s doctor when you need some extra support – we’re here to help.

> For more help with the new school year, check out our Back to School Kit

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