Ready or not, here comes school!

After months of global uncertainty, you’d think we would be pros at handling the unknown, right?!

Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and many of us are feeling unsettled as we wait and see what this new school year brings.

Before I share my 5 tips for getting through the start of school with you, ponder this:

Research shows that uncertainty triggers severe anxiety in most people because the brain registers uncertainty as danger.

In fact, one recent study showed that people who were told they would definitely receive a painful electric shock were calmer than those who were told there was a 50% chance they would receive one.

When our brains know what is coming, they can plan for it. When they don’t, they overestimate the risk of a situation, and underestimate our ability to handle it.

So, when you find yourself worried about what is coming, take a deep breath and remind yourself that worry is your brain’s attempt at protecting you, and it doesn’t actually mean there is any real danger.

Inhale, exhale… You’ve handled 2020 so far. You can handle this, too.

Here are my 5 tips to help you and your child thrive on this new adventure.

1. Be aware of your expectations and be willing to modify them. 

Expectations can lead to all sorts of frustration, especially when we are not aware of them. Pay attention to the “shoulds” in your head and check them to see if they are realistic (meaning your child is able to meet them!)

Some hidden expectations you may have include:

We should follow the schedule exactly as it is.”

My child should be able to do their work on their own so I can work.”

My child should stay on task so they can get done sooner.”

If expectations are causing friction with you and your child, rethink them, or talk with your child about solutions to the situation causing the frustrations.

2. Make the relationship with your child the priority.

We all want our children to do well in school, and it’s easy to get caught up in the to-do list and the constant checking of their progress.

However, your child will do better if they know that your main priority is to be a source of support and comfort for them.

When the focus is on their performance, they will be less likely to communicate with you when they are struggling.

If you see that your child is distracted and not getting their work done, resist the temptation to micromanage them. Instead, take a few minutes and find a way to connect with them.

Let them know that you see their struggle, and offer them words of encouragement or physical affection. Just a few minutes of connection can go a long way toward helping them get back on track.

3. Choose curiosity over fear.

It is very easy to slip into a fear-based mindset when things aren’t going smoothly. Fear can quickly turn short-term struggles into character flaws, or predictions about the child’s future.

For example, when your child is not motivated to do their work, you might label them as being lazy, or convince yourself that they are going to be living with you well into their 40s.

When you catch yourself getting caught up in fear-based thinking, take some deep breaths and get curious.

Curiosity allows you to step away from your emotions and think clearly about the situation. You might observe your child while they are attempting to work, or have a conversation with them about what it’s like to be doing school online.

You might discover that they are feeling overwhelmed because they don’t understand the assignments, or that they are sad because seeing their friends on the Zoom calls makes them realize how much they miss them.

Fear promotes blame and shame. Curiosity promotes connection and problem solving.

4. Be their consultant instead of their director.

When we take on the responsibility for our child’s academic performance, we deprive them of an opportunity to develop a sense of agency, or the belief that they are capable.

In addition, we typically end up resentful toward our kids when their performance doesn’t live up to our expectations.

Even though your child is under your supervision at home, they still have a teacher who is monitoring their progress. Let them be the director.

You can be the consultant by informing them that you are available if they need you, but leave it up to them to seek your help (as opposed to hovering or micromanaging!).

When you release control, and let your child know you are confident in their ability to manage their work and ask for help when they need it, you are giving them space to practice valuable life skills.

Keep in mind that the level of intervention (directing) needed will vary depending on the age and developmental level of your child.

However, there are opportunities for independence at every age level.  Look for them and hand them over. I promise you, you will be thankful that you did when they are capable, independent adults!

5. Have a clear beginning and ending of the school day.

One thing I have noticed since working from home, is that it is extremely difficult for my brain to focus on work.

When the kids are around, my “mommy brain” strives to be attentive to them. And, with my work stuff all around the house, it’s a challenge to be present with my family without my mind wandering to my to-do list for work.

There is a good chance your child will experience similar struggles, and have a hard time focusing on school when there are so many distractions around the house.

You can help the day go more smoothly by having a consistent morning routine, and a clear start to the school day, just like they would have at school.

Here are some other things to consider to help make the distinction clear:

  • Do a morning check-in 15 minutes before “class” starts. Ask them how they are feeling about the upcoming school day. If they are struggling, you can brainstorm ways to overcome the struggles with them. Perhaps they need to get some fresh air before school starts, or maybe they need a snuggle to fill their cup. This is likely similar to what you would do during the car ride to school, and morning drop off.
  • If possible, eat breakfast and do morning check-ins in a place that is different from where they will be doing their work. Encourage them to stay out of their “classroom” until class starts. That might mean staying out of the room where they work, or keeping their supplies put away until a few minutes before class begins.
  • When the school day is done (at the same time each day) have them put everything away, out of sight, if possible. Do another check in and ask them how things went that day. If they didn’t complete their work, I highly recommend you end the day anyway. It will be easier for them to learn to focus during “school hours” if they know there will always be a distinct ending time, because there is the promise of free time at the end. Remember, our brains like certainty, and can become overwhelmed by fear when it is not present.

I hope these tips empower you to have a positive mindset regarding the new school year. In the end, the most important tip is to put the relationship first.

Keep this grounding quote from Maya Angelou in the back of your mind in order to help you with that:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You’ve got this! I’m cheering for you all the way.