Back to School: Tips for Families to Help Adjust to Another Unpredictable School Year

This year many parents are looking forward to in-person learning for their kids. Maybe you’re also feeling a little nervous with all the unpredictability of the pandemic. I’m with you! We’re talking up first grade to our recently homeschooled kindergartener as well as getting our pre-schooler ready for his first school year. We are pulling out all the stops to help with the inevitable separation anxiety we are likely to face after no child care for 17 months, no structured school schedule, and two self employed parents tirelessly balancing work with our children’s demands.

The pandemic has been hard for everyone but what was most challenging for many was not having a separation of home from work and school. Most people thrive on routines and predictability. Many people compartmentalize their environments to help with productivity (school is for learning, work is for working, home is for relaxation and family time, gym is for exercising, etc). This helps with emotional regulation and overall mental health. The school year often provides this structure both for kids and their parents and can be a great ally. During the pandemic, there are still ways to try to maintain this structure despite the challenges we might face with potential school closings and the dreaded e-learning. 

I’d like to provide some tips I implement with my families during times of transition and uncertainty. If you practice these skills regularly, you will be able to improve your overall emotional regulation and not have to wait until a crisis occurs and you or your kids feel completely overwhelmed. 

Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, talks about great tips to practice emotional regulation through her PLEASE acronym (PL: treat physical illness, E: eat healthy, A: avoid mood altering drugs, S: sleep well, E: exercise).

Here are some ways to implement the PLEASE acronym for emotional regulation: 

  1. Follow a sleep routine. It makes sense since we try to implement this with our kids when they are babies. Sleep has been shown to be restorative to the brain which is helpful to our mood regulation. 
  2. Eat well and regularly. Plan your meals around the same time each day if you can! Try to eat a variety of healthy foods and be consistent with not skipping meals. Talk your physician if you need additional support in this area or seek out support from a certified nutritionist. 
  3. Set up a morning routine and bedtime routine for yourselves and your children. This helps signal to the brain that we are ready to take on the day or wind down at the end of the night. This is a great time to be sure you and your kids are consistent with hygiene practices as well which is also great for our mental health. Morning routines might include a warm cup of coffee, eating breakfast, or just going through hygiene practices. Also, sleep routines might include chamomile tea, lavender lotion, soft music, guided meditation, reading, journaling, stretching, or a sound machine. 
  4. Try to set up 15 minutes a day to connect with yourself. Meditate, practice deep breathing, stretch, read, walk, drink a cup of coffee alone outside on the patio, journal. Whatever gives you time to reset without work, screens, or other priorities. 
  5. Try to set up 15 minutes a day to connect with each of your children (separately if possible). If time is an issue this could be a conversation or singing a song in the car or including them with a task you need to complete. 
  6. Limit mood altering substances (caffeine, alcohol, etc.) as these can contribute to poor emotional regulation. Many things can directly impact the nervous system which causes you to feel more anxious or irritable when leaving your system. These are temporary fixes so try to be mindful of when you engage in use of these substances. 
  7. Try to stay active! Go the the gym, do some stretches at your work desk, move around the house and clean, take a walk, anything instead of sitting on the couch or lying in bed for long periods of time. You can even get active with your kids if you don’t have a sitter. Cosmic Kids yoga is a big hit in our house. 
  8. And last, allow for transition times between home and school. Kids need time to decompress after a long day at school and this year might be even more challenging with the mandate of school masks. Let them have some flexibility before they jump into chores, homework, or any other responsibilities. Have a clear expectation about after-school schedules so they can have some predictability when they get home as well as a time to look forward to in order to relax a bit. 

If you practice these routines and skills regularly, you and your kids might feel more confident with managing the uncertainties the pandemic may bring with the new school year. Of course, a little flexibility might be needed by you and your children but an overall structure in the home environment can help with the transition to another school year that many children are uncertain about. Just remember, breathe and you got this.