How to Support Your Child During Virtual or In Person Learning Transitions

By: Fiorella Rosen, LCSW-C
Here comes another change! As Montgomery County schools prepare to re-open for in-person learning in the coming weeks, families prepare for yet another transition. We all know that transitions can be hard, especially for kids, and after a solid year of non-stop unpredictability, even one which might approximate a much anticipated return to some semblance of “normalcy” can still produce anxiety.
The decision to return to school is a deeply personal one, impacted by many factors for each family. I have talked with many parents struggling with their choice when completing the initial MCPS survey, back when in-person school seemed an unlikely hypothetical and even more so over recent weeks when it looked like “they might actually make this happen”.
Regardless of the decision made, neither seems without doubts and concerns. For those who have elected to remain fully virtual the fear is that their children will suffer socially an/or emotionally, will feel even more left out seeing many friends and peers return to be in class together, they will wonder if it might not be academically more advantageous to have their child in the classroom, and will face an extension to their (sometimes unpleasant) role as at-home school administrator.
Those who are sending their children back are likely experiencing excitement and nervousness as well and wondering about whether they’ve made the right decision, whether their kids will be safe, whether this new version of school will be able to meet their children’s social and emotional needs.

Here’s what parents can do to help their children face the challenges arising from either decision:

Remaining Virtual:

  • Reflect your child’s feelings. In age-appropriate language echo what they feel about this change, “It’s really hard to see your friends go back to school without you”, “It hurts to feel left out”, “It really stinks not to get to be with your friends”. Stay with their feelings and resist the desire to immediately cheer them up. I know it’s hard, but we want to promote distress tolerance and resiliency.
  • No need to over-explain the decision to remain virtual, for the most part our kids have been paying attention this year and they get it. Repeatedly reminding them of why they are staying at home, ex. “to keep our vulnerable family member safe” may cause them to feel guilty about feeling sad or upset, and invalidate their feelings.
  • Continue to find creative and safe ways to allow your child to have meaningful interactions with friends/peers. We have been so creative over this year in finding and making opportunities to safely meet our kids needs, keep it up!

Returning to In-person:
Even though many kids are excited to return many are also simultaneously experiencing anxiety about this, as are their parents.

  • Reflect your child’s feelings. In age-appropriate language echo what they are feeling, “It is sad that you won’t get to stay in (virtual teacher’s name) class, you are going to miss him/her”, “You’re excited to go back to school but worried about being safe”, “You’re going to miss being with us/your siblings/your pets”. Stay with the feeling and resist the desire to immediately cheer them up. I know it’s hard, but we want to promote distress tolerance and resiliency
  • Provide enough information to help your child form reasonable expectations about what the new landscape of school will look like. Avoid offering excessive reassurance, particularly for children prone to anxiety reassurance can become a vicious cycle as the anxiety demands more and more of it. “Where will I get dropped off again? Who will be there? Where will I go next? Where will I sit? Where will my friend be?”. <Repeat>. Let your child know that we can’t know all the things all the time, that you have detailed what you do know and that the rest they will have to wait and see. Reflect that not knowing is uncomfortable, recall that the whole past year has been full of a LOT of unknowns and ask your child to think about how they have handled those. Hopefully this will remind them that they have already faced the unknown many times and that they have gotten through it just fine.
  • Monitor the messages you are sending about your own feelings of anxiety because little ears are always listening. Model confidence and enthusiasm, but be honest. “I don’t know all the things and that’s hard, but I trust your teachers and school administrators to keep you safe like always” and “I believe in you! I know you’ll do your best!”

If your child is experiencing significant distress, which is interfering with their sleep and/or day-to-day activities seek additional support for them.
There is no one “right” decision in this situation we are in. Everyone is just making the “right for my family” decision. Regardless of what your family has chosen; it may come with some hiccups. Be as patient and understanding with yourself as you are with your child as you continue to navigate virtual learning or embark on this uncharted in-person learning experience.