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Families have weathered the worst of the pandemic and somehow managed to cope with remote learning, hybrid models and a new reality where kids socialize mainly through devices. Now that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to think about how kids will return to regular school this fall. There will definitely be a learning curve and a period of adjustment. “To say the past year-and-a-half has deeply affected our kids is underplaying it,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a Princeton-based psychologist specializing in parenting and child development and author of Growing Friendships. “Parents are concerned about everything: social and emotional development, academics, executive function, drive…you name it.”

Whether kids flourished or floundered with virtual learning, one thing all parents can agree on is that we don’t know what to expect this fall after so much time at home. Will masks still be mandatory? Can kids play together indoors again? Will they remember what it’s like to have a daily in-person school routine? “My prediction is that it’s going to be even harder in the fall,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Kids lost a year-and-a-half of social and emotional development and interaction with their peers and teachers. But we’re going to get through this.”

BUILD STAMINA FOR SCHOOLING

Staying attentive, enthusiastic, seated and likely masked for the entire school day will probably be difficult after a routine of rolling from bed to desk with easy access to breaks, snacks and hugs. Kids need to build up a tolerance for rule-following again. Some ways to practice this include rising with an alarm, getting dressed for breakfast and facing the day. Little ones need to be active and out and about. “Lying around isn’t good for them,” says Kennedy-Moore. “And it’s hard to fight it when there’s nothing else to do.” Parents can plan daily activities, enroll kids in camps or classes and push older kids to get a job or volunteer.

CREATE OPPORTUNITIES TO SOCIALIZE

Socially savvy kids were mostly okay—it was the introverted ones who lost out without the routine interactions to cultivate relationships. “Try to inch kids back towards doing some sort of group activity,” suggests Kennedy-Moore. “Ideally, you want them in a new situation with new people. The closer you can get it to being what it will be like at school the better—the easier it will be for your kid to slide into the new routine.”

FOCUS ON EVERYDAY LEARNING

Our fears over a “lost” year were, thankfully, mostly unfounded. “Teachers were teaching and students were learning during this pandemic,” says Leslie Calabrese, instructor of professional practice in special education at Rutgers. “While it did not look the same as previous years, teachers were able to adjust and teach via the new platforms.” These new formats may have led to even greater opportunities for students to learn. If parents are worried about maintaining gains, Calabrese suggests incorporating math and literacy skills into daily activities such as shopping with a budget, reading together or discussing history. “Learning and thinking should not only happen in school,” she says. For those truly in need of a boost, tutoring and academic camps can also help kids get caught up.

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GET ORGANIZED AS A FAMILY

With the return to in-person learning, teachers may no longer post assignments online or be quite so available for questions. Parents won’t have the intimate access to daily lessons and will need to rely on their kids to keep them informed. Set up systems and routines your child can implement, from weekly backpack clean-outs to a communal workspace for a shared calendar where students can add their assignments along with short and long-term goals necessary for completion, suggests Calabrese. “Parents can also add a checklist of what the child is responsible for to ensure a successful school day and year,” she says. “Intentionally making children an active part of their successes and failures is a great way to ensure success in school, and ultimately in life.”

FOCUS ON KINDNESS AND UNDERSTANDING

This is a big transition fraught with emotion and anxiety. “Meet your child wherever they are with lots of love and empathy,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Kids need to feel heard and that’s something you can give them through reflection. Echo your kids’ thoughts and acknowledge their feelings without trying to fix things. After they vent, then you can prompt them to problem-solve. For example, if they’re struggling to keep their mask on in class, ask what they think might help. Perhaps it doesn’t fit well. Either way, let them arrive at the right solution. “It’s better to ask questions than to give answers,” Kennedy-Moore says.

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

Your kids are probably going to get excited about a normal fall but you need to set realistic expectations. “It’s going to be a bit of a come down,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Friends are going to be annoying, homework will be annoying. And there will be some longing: ‘Remember when I could just lie in my bed?’” On the other hand, they’ll be fully engaged with friendship, learning and community. “Trust in your child’s strength that they’ll get through this and it will become normal again.”

—Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.

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