After an impossibly hard school year, many parents are beginning to feel cautiously optimistic about returning to school this fall. However, many families are also worried about the challenges students will face as they transition back to in-person learning.

Families should start making efforts to prepare their children for the transition – socially, logistically and emotionally – as soon as they are able to. We expect most children to exhibit some worries and concerns about returning to school and about potential exposure to COVID-19, changes with the school setting and resuming social contact with their peers. Change can be difficult, especially when children and families already had to adjust to various shifts for the past year.

10 ways to help your child transition to in-person learning

  1. Check-in with your mental health needs and seek support if you need it! Children can readily detect their parents’ stress, which causes them to stress as well.
  2. Have back-to-school discussions when there are no distractions or interruptions, and you are in a calm place so you can best provide the information your child needs.
  3. Openly discuss with children what changes or worries they anticipate in going back to in-person learning. If your child is unsure, then provide examples of some worries children their age might have and see if any of those apply to them.
  4. Start preparing your child for the transition by resuming habits and routines that were utilized prior to virtual learning to adjust to an in-person schedule. This includes adjusting sleep schedules to earlier bedtimes and wake-up times and packing bookbags the night before and setting up clothes, to name a few. Ideally this should be done at least two weeks before school starts to allow for gradual adjustment.
  5. Go over expectations for your child regarding safety procedures at school: masking, washing hands, sanitizing and social distancing.
  6. Obtain the school’s orientation plan along with your child’s daily schedule in advance so you can review it together at home.
  7. If circumstances permit, request a tour of the school prior to reopening to allow your child to familiarize themselves with the school’s layout.
  8. If your child already hasn’t started social activities, then try to set up a time to meet one or two friends prior to school starting.
  9. Check-in with your child regularly, ask open-ended questions and normalize any negative emotions they might be experiencing. If the child is not ready to open up, providing them with a validating and a consistent supportive environment will help them process their emotions more smoothly when they are able to do so.
  10. Expect some difficulty with transitioning back to the school environment for the first couple of weeks. However, you should see a reduction in anxiety/resistance quickly as they readjust. If your child is showing extreme distress that is impairing their ability to transition back to school and engage in the school day, a gradual school return plan can be developed with the help of a mental health provider.

Overall, the most important thing to remember is that the return to in-person school will not be perfect. It’s not only students that are transitioning to a “new normal” but also principals, teachers, bus drivers and school administrators. Expect hiccups and recognize this will be part of the adjustment process. Give yourself and the child space to process these concerns. If your child continues to show high signs of distress after a month, then consider reaching out to a mental health provider for additional support with mental health recommendations.


Sanchita Sharma, PsyD, was a psychologist at Children's National.

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Posts from Sanchita Sharma, PsyD

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