Back-to-School, Like Never Before

School is going to be different this year. 

Whether it’s virtual, in-person, or hybrid, back-to-school will not look like what it did last February. I know that it’s stressful – new policies, new expectations, new rules… it’s just… hard. Our kids are going to be under new stresses, and as the adults who love them, so are we. 

In our family, though, a “new normal” is, well, normal; our oldest, Sophia, is going into 7th grade and into her seventh K-12 public school. 
SEVENTH. Sure, some of those were inter-district moves; she’s only attended in four separate districts/ states (!!!)… but still, that’s a whole lot of change. A whole lot of new rules, new expectations, new friends, new hallways, new cafeterias, new unwritten-ways-of-doing things, new principals, new normals. She started a new school after Christmas break in both 1st and 4th. I have driven her, she has ridden the bus, she’s walked, she’s biked. Every single year, new ways of doing things. New normals.

And you know what? She’s alright. 

Actually, strike that. She’s more than alright. She’s brilliant and creative, thoughtful and kind, brave and compassionate. And, thanks to the hardship our family has been through, she is resilient.  Incredibly, fiercely, resilient. And it isn’t just her; the same is true of her siblings. They have been through a lot of change in their short lives, and they have faced every one with courage and grace.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about some of the things we’ve learned over the years to help with school transitions, ways we as a family work together to reduce the stress as much as possible. Many things are out of our control, which makes getting a handle on the things we can control that much more important. Parenting isn’t just about making sure our kids show up to school every day; parenting is about helping them learn to navigate change, guiding them through whatever life throws at them. The older they get, the more hands-off we are, though we’re always available to talk things through. As a family, we approach every transition as an opportunity for growth… that doesn’t mean we like it, but if we can’t change it, we’ll absolutely make the best of it. This entire generation of kids will be shaped for the rest of their lives by what happens this school year, so handling it in the best way we can will help them with every change they’ll face over the coming years. In our family, what we have learned through our past changes is informing how we are approaching this Like-Never-Before school year. Here are a few things that have worked well for us:

Hold space to feel — and name and process — grief and lament. We are clear that this isn’t what anyone wants. Jonathan and I have often said to the kids, “I know this isn’t what you were hoping this year would be. We’re really sad that last year ended the way it did and this one is going to be so different. It just sucks.” We stay there as long as each person needs to, and circle back when these feelings of sadness and grief resurface, never pretending otherwise. Resilience isn’t “putting on a brave face” – naming our sadness is incredibly important. Tears are okay and sadness is okay. I don’t think this is anyone’s ideal year, and we can acknowledge that.

Give kids agency – and ownership – over what the school year looks like. This is about the things we can control. We have asked the kids about what their values are for working from home: Would you rather set up space in your room or in a common area? Would you rather have your own desks, or one table? When should we take breaks?

Maybe for your younger kids that looks like letting them still pack their own lunch to eat at home, or choosing colorful masks they like for school. Just because some things are sad, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find joy at all! Maybe that means they get to listen to the music they want to while they work from home (something they couldn’t do at school!). Or maybe it means they carry their favorite scent of hand sanitizer with them. What opportunities do they have this year to do things the way *they* want to do them? Given all the “NOs” in kids’ lives right now, where are some places we can say “YES!”??

Remind them you have their back, and you’re all in it together. I’ve found that our kids are often more adaptable than we adults are, and that sometimes the reason they’re struggling is that, really, we as adults are struggling, and project that onto our kids. Chances are, your kids have overheard how you’ve talked about this school year, especially your (understandable) anger and frustration about it. Have they also overheard your insistence that you can – and will – get through it, together? That they can still have a good year, even though it isn’t what they were hoping for? Have they heard you talk about how proud you are of them – and how you, their teachers, and their administrators are all working together to make this a successful year, even though it will look different? Kids do well when they feel like they are a part of something, on a team. It takes a village, and we’re all on their team this year. Facing challenges is always easier when we aren’t doing it alone.

Remember that the consistency kids need the most is from you. Your unending love and support matters more than buildings and chromebooks, more than masks and hand sanitizer. It matters more than what way they walk down the hall or whether they get on a bus or stay at the dining room table. This is why our family has traditions that we can do no matter what house and city and state we live in, no matter if Dad is home or away, no matter if we have friends close-by or not. How can you bring the comfort of ritual, tradition, and consistency into the kids’ lives this school year? With all the other changes in their lives, if home is consistent and supportive, that’s what matters the most. Maybe light a candle or ring a bell at the beginning of every school-from-home day, or have Friday Donut Breakfast! Maybe you give them a big hug before they log into Zoom every morning or leave a note in their lunchbox. The logistics of their lives is changing, but your love for them is not. That’s what matters the most.

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Parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, anyone who loves a kid: Take a deep breath, a sip of coffee, and hear my gentle reminder as we’re curled up on my couch:  You’ve got this. Our kids have got this. It will be different and new… and maybe, just maybe, together, we can come through stronger on the other side.

One thought on “Back-to-School, Like Never Before

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  1. You are “right on”. My youngest is 56 and all 4 learned to accept change, manage what you can, etc. Hope your message has a huge following.

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