Ways to create the “Best Odds” for your child’s Back-to-School success
The past year has taken a serious toll on our kids. They’ve lost their social skills, they are lonely, depressed and anxious, and they have a whole new host of pandemic-fueled worries. As schools start reopening for in person learning, parenting expert and best-selling author Dr. Michele Borba shares a “best odds” plan for helping them bounce back and thrive.
As more schools begin reopening for in-class learning, parents are breathing a sigh of relief. While they want their kids to make a smooth transition back after a year of isolation and virtual classes, most are focused on grades as the marker of their children’s success. Michele Borba, Ed.D., says a high GPA is not the only success metric we should be worried about. Your child’s emotional intelligence and social skills matter too. These might seem like “soft and fluffy” concerns, but they are in fact crucial to your child’s mental health and resilience—especially in the midst of a crisis like COVID-19.
“Any crisis can further amplify a problem,” says Dr. Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1, $27.00). “If your child was lonely or isolated before the pandemic began, that problem is likely now worse after a year of physical distancing. After all, many kids lost a lot of opportunities to practice building their ‘social skill’ muscles and they may have become more dependent on you during this time as well.”
To some parents, this may not be surprising; a recent poll found that 70 percent of parents worry that their children are falling behind socially. On top that, kids may be having typical back-to-school worries like “How will I find my classroom?” or even new pandemic-related worries such as “How do I make friends when kids wear masks?” and “Will I die from the virus?”
But that’s not all: A recent review of 83 articles, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that loneliness is associated with depression and anxiety in children, and those who feel lonely for longer periods of time might be more affected.
Here’s the good news, says Dr. Borba. The science of resilience shows that children who are prepared to face challenges will be more successful in bouncing back from adversity. Studies also find that when kids feel they have some control over what’s happening, anxieties decrease and smooth their transition. And the best news yet: One of the greatest ways to increase mental well-being in your kids is by helping them develop social resilience—connecting, relating, and getting along.
That’s where parents come in. You can support your kids in rebuilding their social skills and developing the resiliency that transforms them into Thrivers. Dr. Borba’s new book can help. It shares the character strengths that set up young people for happiness and achievement in life along with strategies that build resilience.
In the meantime, you can help your kids sharpen their social skills for a successful return to school. Here are 14 ways to help children be ready, willing, and able to head back to class whenever those school doors open.
1. Visit the school (online or in person). Many kids will be stepping onto a new school campus for the first time. A larger campus can be intimidating even to an adolescent—especially if your teen has multiple classes in different locations, so anticipate her “worry list” and be prepared to support them. If possible, take your child for a tour so he can find key places like his classroom, playground, school office, cafeteria, lockers, and restroom. Many schools have websites that give online tours. These not only show the school layout, they will also give your child an idea of how other students look and dress so they can feel like they “fit in.”
2. Print a map and schedule. Go online to obtain a map of the school, and print out your child’s class schedule. Then help him walk that campus until he feels secure. Additionally, get a school handbook. The more your child is aware of school rules and rituals the more comfortable he’ll be. Also, anticipate concerns. If she worries about losing her schedule, suggest that she print an extra one and store it inside her backpack. If he fears he won’t find his classroom, practice walking to it (if possible) or find a friendly older kid who can be his escort until he finds his way.
3. Identify caring champions. Thrivers have a cadre of people they trust and can turn to if needed. Help your child identify their “go-to” people and the places to find them. They might include adults like the secretary, the friendly cafeteria worker, and their fourth period teacher as well a few friends. If your child is dealing with grief, depression, or anxiety please share your concerns with the school counselor. Then make sure that your child knows the times and place that the counselor is available during the school day.
4. Find one friend. Thrivers don’t have a lot of friends, but they do have a few loyal buddies. Social distancing has curtailed children from making new friends, but they still need a few to feel safe and included at school. Help your child identify at least one child to connect with at school—they don’t need to become best pals, but it’s important to at least have a contact. Check your neighborhood, youth, or religious groups, as well as other parents, and the school; do they have the name and contact of at least one student in your kid’s classroom or school? If so, connect them.
5. Practice social skills. Friendship skills must be exercised before a child feels comfortable using them in a social setting. Three of the most commonly used social skills are saying “hello,” smiling, and encouraging others. Practice those at home and whenever you’re out together—whether it’s on a walk, going to the grocery store, or sitting around the dinner table. Masks may hide a smile but tell your child that you can wave and “smile with your eyes.” Safe encouragers during COVID could be a “thumbs up” or “elbow bump,” as well as saying “good job!” You might also help your child practice greeting others (“Hi! How are you?”) as well as making a new friend (“My name is Fred and I’m in this class, too.”). You might even slip an index card and pen into your child’s backpack so she can jot down the contact information for the classmate.
6. Tune into telltale anxiety signs. Every child handles change differently, but watch for any new or unhealthy signs that endure. They may signal anxiety. For instance, your child refuses to go to school; your child is clingier than normal and won’t let you out of his sight; your child is more irritable and agitated; your child regresses to babylike or former behaviors (whining, nail biting, bed wetting); or your child is more negative about school or self (“I’ll hate it” or “The kids will hate me”). Keep an eye on anything from non-regular sleeping habits or eating habits, irritability, unusual quietness, or anything that isn’t their normal behavior. It’s always better to ask and talk about things before they get to be too serious or before they disrupt too much of your child’s school life.
Here’s a simple quiz to help you know when to worry about your child’s fears. For each statement, answer true or false. If you answer “true” to at least two of these statements because they apply to your child’s inability to cope with an ongoing fear, consider seeking the advice of a mental health professional.
- The fear and your child’s response are not typical for a child his age.
- The fear is becoming more severe and is continuing over several weeks.
- The fear is upsetting your child’s life.
- The fear seems unreasonable or a possible sign of a more serious problem. You’re seeing other behavior or symptoms that concern you as well.
7. Don’t brush your kid’s fears under the rug. As trivial or unfounded as a worry may seem, the feeling is real to your child and it’s causing anxiety. So ignoring, belittling or trying to talk kids out of the fear or diminish them won’t help. The best parenting strategy is to let the child share his concerns. Then calmly listen without judging and help your child feel safe. “Thank you for telling me.” “We’ll find a way to shrink your worry.” “You’re not alone.” “Other kids have same worries.” “I’m here for you.” Do refrain from adopting the “protector” role. Shielding kids from stressful situations is not the answer; they’ll never learn to extinguish the fears on their own. Instead, teach strategies to help them cope so they are more likely to thrive.
8. Dig deeper (or identify the special worry). Many kids worry about losing a year of school: “Will I ever catch up?” “What if the other kids are farther ahead than I am?” “Did I lose my scholarship?” Tune into their concerns and find solutions when possible: Such as forming an after school tutoring group, arranging a learning pod of similar aged students to meet at your home, or meeting together with your child’s teachers and coming up with a plan. And remember, tutors don’t have to break the bank; look into securing a high school student as a tutor (many students offer free tutoring sessions). Most importantly let your child know that you love them no matter what. Together you will find a way—the most important thing is always your child’s health and well-being.
9. Create a tension scale. Anxious kids often have a hard time verbalizing their concerns. So, create a tension scale from one to ten (younger kids can call it a “Fear Thermometer”), then teach it to your child. Explain: “One means no tension. You feel calm and confident. Ten is a ‘high fear factor.’ When you feel extremely tense about the situation, your heart palpitates, and you’re afraid to move.” When you see your child’s tension signs flare up, and you know that he feels uncomfortable and tense, ask: “How bad is your fear on a scale of one to ten?” The strategy will also help kids tune into their “body alarms” that warn them they need to relax before the fear mounts.
10. Teach anxiety reducers. Resilient kids learn anxiety-taming techniques that they can use whenever tension or fear start to mount. The trick is to teach coping strategies and then practice until the child can use them without you. Taking a deep, slow breath is one of the best ways to relax. So, teach your child to “Take Ten”: Take a deep breath while counting slowly to five; now slowly let your breath out through your nose (and release any tension) while you count to ten. Keep Taking Ten until you feel relaxed.
11. Chunk the fear. Telling a child that his fear is unfounded will get you nowhere, says Dr. Borba. The fear is real to the child. But if your child can experience the event and realize that the worst thing didn’t happen, he will begin to lose the fear. The trick is to expose kids to their dreaded situation slowly and in small doses at a level they can handle then gradually increase the “scariness factor.” For instance, if the child is terrified that she will catch the virus, then slowly chunk the fear into manageable doses. Day 1: Open the window; Day 2: Open the door; Day 3: Put your toe outside; Day 4: Walk to the mailbox. Keep increasing the fear until your child feels safe.
12. Talk back to the worry. Researchers at the University of McGill found that teaching a child to “talk to back to the fear” helps reduce anxiety. The child feels she is in charge of the worry and not the other way around. The trick is to have your child practice telling herself she’ll be okay before facing the actual fear to help build up confidence. She can then use the technique at times you’re not there. For a younger child: “Go away worry, leave me alone. Mommy will come back.” For an older child: “I won’t let the worry get me. I can handle this.” They can also learn fear-reducing self-statements such as “I can handle this.” “I will be OK.” “It’ll get better.”
13. Point to “the first thing.” Not knowing what to do or where to go upon arriving at a new scene can increase anxiety. So, offer “first thing” suggestions. For an older child, suggest: “Go to the basketball court that you enjoy or meet up with that kid you met at the park.” For a younger child: “You love puzzles. Walk into class and go straight to the puzzle center.”
14. Put your kid in the driver seat. Feeling as if you have some control over a situation helps reduce the worry. So, empower your kid by helping him develop his own fear-reducing plan. Start by identifying one concern. For example, he worries about forgetting his locker combination. Brainstorm reasonable options until your kid can find at least one thing that might help him feel more in control. He might propose that he write his combination with a marking pen on the inside of his shoe. Then encourage him to carry it out.
And one piece of advice for parents: Let the school know if your child is having a hard time due to COVID. Mental health experts are seeing an upsurge in childhood stress, anxiety, and depression right now. An estimated 40,000 children lost a parent during COVID-19 and thousands of others are experiencing financial instability. If your child has experienced grief, prolonged mental health issues, or is currently receiving therapeutic or medical services, please share your child’s needs with his teacher, counselor, and school.
These exercises and tactics are powerful game changers for kids because they can build the resilience they’ll need now as well as later. Practice them until your child learns them, and then back off from helicoptering and rescuing. In fact, vow to no longer solve problems for them. Kids must experience independence and Thrivers have agency and feel a sense of control over their lives.
“Helping our kids learn to thrive must be part of our toolkit as we raise them in our new, uncertain world,” concludes Dr. Borba. “Back-to-school anxiety is one challenge among many that kids will have to learn to conquer as they grow, so these are skills they will call on again and again. Meanwhile, remember that your child takes cues from you so keep your cool, hold back your worries, offer ongoing reassurance, and be sure to remind your child, ‘You got this!’”
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations including Sesame Street, Harvard, U.S. Air Force Academy, eighteen U.S. Army bases in Europe and the Asian-Pacific, H.H. the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a TEDx Talk: “Empathy Is a Verb.” She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. She is a regular NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.