Back to school: How to help kids though uncertainty | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Back to school: How to help kids though uncertainty


Much of the last year-and-a-half has been about waiting. We wait for normalcy to return to children’s lives.  

For many families, the upcoming return to school can represent that return to normalcy — friends, social connection and some feelings of predictability that we’re all craving. But many kids are anxious about returning to school.   

Our children are coming out of a period of widespread uncertainty. Even the prospect of some return to normalcy can bring a sense of anxiety and strong emotions that kids need help working through.  

Just as adults have been grappling with different degrees of loss, children have experienced loss on multiple levels. For some kids and families, there has been a literal loss of a loved one through death during the pandemic. Adults have also experienced loss of home or loss of employment during this past year. For kids, major losses have included a general loss of stability that comes with routine and that is so vital for child development.  Additionally, loss of friend groups, the school setting and religious communities have a profound impact on the developing mind of a child.  

During the pandemic, the mental health community published literature on the importance of maintaining routine. That’s one path to helping kids adjust. Another is empathetic listening. 

I encourage all parents to listen empathetically with their children during this adjustment period. 

Empathetic Listening 

If you’re a parent, it’s best to create open conversational spaces that are child-directed and flexible to help children feel more empowered. If you haven’t already, put yourself in your kids’ shoes, seeing return to school through the eyes of children. Follow your kids’ personality or style. If they respond better to structured slow time to discuss feelings in a way that’s scheduled and more formal, that’s great. Informal conversations on your kids’ own time are good, too, and can provide more spontaneous and open sharing. 

How ever you do it, here are five tips for effective empathetic listening: 

  1. Eliminate and reduce distractions. No screens — you want their full attention.  
  2. Use open-ended questions. Adopt the skills of a good interviewer or therapist by using open-ended questions that will elicit conversation, not just yes or no answers. For example, ask, “What part of school closure was the hardest/easiest for you/your friends?” or “How do you think school will be different/the same?” 
  3. Don’t judge. When a child starts to share feelings, parents can validate and get curious about their feelings without judgement.   
  4. Don’t lecture. Resist the temptation to lecture or be a fixer — instead, acknowledge your child’s feelings, and provide gentle reflection of how you perceive them to be feeling, (“it sounds like you’re feeling X about Y…am I understanding you correctly on that?”)  to validate that their internal experience is real to them, and OK. 
  5. Be collaborative. After validating feelings, parents can take a collaborative approach to finding solutions (e.g., using shared memories of other school-based challenges that the child overcame in mutual effort to help child addressing challenges of the here and now). 

Remember that you are the primary emotional regulatory system for your kids. Even into late adolescence, kids still look to adults for predictability and stability. While many, many things in life have changed and continue to change, some things should remain steady and predictable.