By Dr. George Hu, PsyD
Those of us who are parents of schoolchildren in Shanghai are currently preparing for the re-opening of schools with eager expectation. The last few months have been filled with complicated and layered emotions for us in Shanghai, China, and around the world. While we here in China were the first to begin to deal with this pandemic and its ramifications, we are now also the first in the world to gradually return to this “new normal”. During this time, many have turned to the re-opening of schools as one of the final signals that all is not lost, we will eventually find some semblance of “normal”, and that we will be able to move past this tumultuous chapter in history.
The reality is that so many aspects of this pandemic are unprecedented, and that includes the process of returning to school. This pandemic forced those of us in China to change the way we work, learn, travel, play, exercise, and relate to one another almost instantly. This brought immense burden and anxiety for many, and the difficulties associated with this process have now become famous, and have affected almost every single social conversation in this land. Some have eventually thrived and hit their groove, while many have struggled to one extent or the other. All of us have had to live with insecurity and the unpredictable. For many, this was combined with the immeasurable weight of needing to care for someone sick with the virus, dealing will illness themselves, or grieving the loss of a loved one.
As parents, we turn to the opening of the schools with a high degree of hope and expectation. We hope that this will the final stepping stone to the “other side”, whatever that looks like. But it’s important to note that while we may be in similarly uncharted territory here, we do have some information from school openings in other areas of China. I’ve assembled some of those learnings here, along with information gleaned after other pandemic quarantine periods.
1. Encourage the expression of emotions. Talk with your child about their experiences over this quarantine/e-learning period, including his/her feelings about going back to school. Ask them about what they enjoyed, what they found difficult, and what they think their experience will be going back to school.
2. Apply empathy, not judgment. It’s important not to judge a child’s feelings, but instead follow each expression of emotion with a statement of empathy. For example…
Child: It was really hard for me to keep up with all the schoolwork when learning online! I didn’t like it…
Parent: Why? You had less home when learning online than you usually do. Didn’t you find it easier? Didn’t you feel like you had more free time?
Parent: I understand, it can be hard to get used to a new format of learning. Though you found it difficult, I’m really proud of how you seemed to get used to it quickly!
3. Prepare your family’s schedule (not just your child’s). If your family is anything like ours, the entire family schedule more or less revolves around that of your children. Try to get the whole family back on a “school schedule” as far in advance as possible. Even though your child may not physically be going to school yet, try to move them to the schedule that they would be using when they do go back to school. Try to include: sleep/wake times, meal times, nap times (if applicable), and even the donning of school uniforms.
4. Prepare your child for any anticipated changes in school schedule (that you know of). Depending on individual circumstances, some aspects of the child’s schedule may be different (e.g. parents may no longer be able to enter the campus to drop children off at the classroom, staggered break times, etc). Pay attention to any announcements from your child’s school, and inform your child ahead of time regarding these changes, if possible.
5. Reconfigure digital device habits. Many children (and adults) may have had to use digital devices much more than usual over the last few months. As we prepare for the return to school, try to return your child (and the rest of the family too) to digital device habits that will be more appropriate.
Consider the following:
a. Reduce use of digital devices about 3 hours before bedtime (this may depend on the age/grade of your child.
b. There is some evidence that glasses that filter out a percentage of “blue light” from device screens help reduce the impact on sleep.
c. Try to take frequent breaks from the screen, and take a few seconds to focus on distant objects, such as at the other end of the room or out a window.
6. This will be a trial-and-error process. Whatever plans your child’s school has in place for re-opening, they will likely need to amend those plans as we learn more information about what is needed, and as we learn more information about what students, staff, and families need at this stage. It is natural, in such a process, to have procedures that do not work out and need to be amended. Try to explain to your child (and also remind yourself) that things may be in a state of change during the early stages of this period.
7. Learning occurs when children feel safe and confident. It can be important to note that, most likely, the school staff are aligned with us as parents regarding the educational goals of our children. While we, as parents, may be eager for our child to return to learning and catch up on material that may be missed, it’s important that children feel safe and secure in order to do so. Returning to school can be disruptive and discombobulating even in the best of times, and our current situation presents unique challenges and stressors to students and school staff alike. Our children’s teachers and school staff members most likely have the exact same goals that we have, but may be focused in early weeks on making sure the school environment is one that is conducive to maximum learning. This may mean a focus on emotional health, emotional safety, a return to socialization and a sense of stability. Don’t worry, the learning will come.
8. Form a partnership with school staff. It’s important to remember that we are indeed all in this together. If you have concerns, discuss them with your children’s school officials as part of a team committed to your child’s success.
Dr. George Hu is a licensed clinical psychologist from the United States. He is the Chief of Mental Health at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital and the President of the Shanghai International Mental Health Association.
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