My Child is Returning to School! Now What?!
How to Support Your Child’s Re-Entry to Full Time In Person Learning
We have reached the one year mark of the pandemic shut down, and restrictions are starting to lift. There are so many mixed emotions- so much sorrow for the countless lives that have been lost, and also so much hope and joy, given that we appear to be steadily moving forward to a return to normal.
Lack of Exposure
As I reflect on this surreal year, I also am aware of how many children have been impacted by the pandemic ripple effect, as I discussed in my previous blog post: “The Pandemic Ripple Effect and the Impact on Our Children”. As pediatric OTs, we have been inundated over the past year with referrals for children who are in need of support for self regulation, emotional regulation and motor skills development, all of which have been exacerbated by the lack of organic exposure to these experiences. Kiddos of all ages have spent the past year moving less, interacting with peers less, interacting with their environment less, and using their hands less, all of which has significantly impacted social, motor, and sensory development. Parents have attempted to provide this support at home while also juggling hybrid and/or remote schedules, learning pods, multiple children with unique schedules and their own work commitments. To say that many parents are relieved for this latest change is an understatement. However, on the flip side, there are also many parents who are worried about the impact of yet another change for their child, especially if their child already struggles with motor skills, sensory processing, and self /emotional regulation.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
“Yet another change, and my child struggles with change”
The return to full time in person learning will re-introduce all of these “development facilitating” experiences for children, which is incredibly exciting! There is no substitute for the organic social, motor, and sensory rich experiences that occur in the classroom setting. But for children who are currently struggling with social, motor, and sensory challenges, the return to full time in person learning can be daunting, stressful and overwhelming. Parents of our clients have voiced their concerns about yet another schedule change in an already confusing year of continued pivoting and are asking for support and advice- how do we help our children navigate what they are about to be bombarded with?
Pediatric OTs Can Help!
Pediatric OTs are adept at meeting each child where he or she is at, and we try to problem solve individual solutions to support success in daily occupations, so this current pivot is a natural opportunity for OTs to step in and help families. Here are some of the suggestions that we have crafted for our KidSHINE clients to address possible motor, social and sensory challenges:
Get Your Child Moving
This may be my KidSHINE lens speaking, but lets face it, kids have been doing more sitting and less moving over the past year. In a pre-pandemic traditional classroom, kiddos participated in multiple transitions during the day, including walking in the hallway to specialists and lunch, participating in gym, having 1-2 recess periods daily, even moving from desks/ chairs to the floor for lessons. Now children are sitting at a desk in front of a computer for hours at a time, both when they are learning from home and when they are in the classroom on the computer for hybrid learning.
With the return to full time in person learning, there will be more movement and more interaction, which is so exciting! And kiddos initially are going to be so happy and also, SO TIRED! As a parent, I can acknowledge that when something is challenging for children and they are tired, that challenging experience can become even more challenging.
By building up your child’s physical endurance, you can head off some of this fatigue (and any fatigue-related emotions and reactions). With the weather starting to improve, encourage your child to go outside, and take your child outside. Go to a playground, run around in the back yard, go on a family walk or hike. Go on a scavenger hunt, play hide and seek, and remind your child how to have fun moving your body. By modeling this active approach, you can re-build your child’s endurance and tolerance to movement in preparation for the more traditional and physically active classroom experience.
Practice Unstructured Play with Peers
This sounds like a paradox- how do you practice something that is unstructured and how do you practice playing? Children who have difficulty with social participation in less structured settings truly benefit from the chance to practice these interactions on a smaller scale first, in a safe location, before returning to these types of activities on a larger scale (where they are tired and overwhelmed by sensory stimuli). By giving your child the opportunity to play with peers on the playground, or play in small, socially distanced groups at home or in the backyard, your child will be able to have successful play experiences before returning to the school playground, and they can have parent support to negotiate and problem solve social nuances that arise in these “safe, practice experiences”.
Read Books with Your Child About School Routines
Age appropriate books that talk about school routines and expectations can act as a social story to help your child remember what the structure of the school day will look like. Additionally, ask your child’s therapist to craft individualized social stories that specifically address areas that may be stressful or confusing for your child. Social stories can be read right before and during the transition to in person full time learning to reinforce what the new daily routine will be like. It is also important to discuss your child’s feeling and questions about the return to full time in person learning, and books and social stories are a great way to start these conversations.
Practice the New Daily Routine, and Review the New Schedule With Your Child
School Tours and Meet and Greet
Classroom teachers, physical classrooms and even schools may be different for kiddos with the return to in person learning. If your child is being asked to switch classrooms or schools midyear, or meet a new teacher, it may be possible to request that your child have a virtual or in person tour of the new school or classroom and also a short virtual or in person meeting with the new teacher prior to the return. There are local schools in our area who are offering this option in person for kiddos who are changing schools unexpectedly and who benefit from advanced preparation. Its definitely worth asking your child's principal about this option.
Visual schedules can be extremely helpful for a child who benefits from consistent routines and from understanding expectations. A visual schedule should be concrete and highlight the expectations and transitions throughout the school day. Your child’s teacher will have a daily schedule, which you may be able to request ahead of time to preview for your child to ease any fears or concerns. Some children benefit from having a picture schedule with them in school so they can cross off tasks once they are completed and know what is coming up next. If your child receives in school support, you can contact your child’s specialists and ask them to implement a visual schedule in the classroom for your child. You can also practice this at home by creating a “home visual schedule” that concretely highlights activities of the day.
Put Sensory Supports In Place AHEAD OF TIME
If your child has difficulty with sensory processing/ self regulation and benefits from a sensory diet, it is very important to have a conversation with your child’s occupational therapist and ask them to review and update your child’s sensory diet prior to the return to full time in person learning. Moving from a relatively quiet, 1:1 virtual learning environment to a busy classroom setting is a transition that can put a sensory sensitive or sensory seeking child over the edge. A consistent sensory diet should be implemented before school, after school and before bed, at the minimum. Ideally, sensory strategies can be implemented during the school day as well (and can be designed by your child's school based OT) , but the bulk of your child’s sensory diet can be completed at home during the non school intervals. By providing your child with the necessary sensory input consistently at home, your child will be better able to remain self regulated during the school day, with less frequent meltdowns after school or at night. Included in sensory health is remembering to facilitate healthy sleeping and eating patterns as much as possible, which will further support self regulation throughout the day.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
When all else fails, remember that this past pandemic year has been a journey, involving constant pivoting, shifting gears, and adapting to change. Returning to full time in person learning will also require time to adapt, so be sure to give your child the supports he or she needs as well as the time needed to adjust. We are all in this together, so when all else fails, know that children are resilient. There are supports both in and outside of school for your child, and as we move forward and finish out this unique school year, we can remain hopeful that we have all grown stronger and learned so much from this past year. And now we move onward and upward. Stay Strong and SHINE On!
Dr. Amy Wheadon, OTD, OTR/L
Owner of KidSHINE LLC
Co-Owner of Kings Day Out LLC