back to school mindset

As schools start across the country, many parents had hoped we would not still be in the midst of the Coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic. Currently, cases continue to climb and some states surging as the total cases in the USA reach over 4.5 million. We are no where near the end of COVID19. Unfortunately, we may have missed our window to pull together by wearing masks and social distance while awaiting a vaccine. These public health strategies were intended to slow the spread of the virus and not overwhelm the hospitals. But, we have not done a good job. And here we are needing to get kids back to school during the pandemic. How do you get a back to school mindset when we’re having to think about so many other things? How do you help your child get in the right frame of mind for learning?

Public health and science is critical during COVID19

If you are following me on my Instagram and Facebook pages, you likely saw my 18-post “Mask of the Day” series. Each post included mask wearing education and parenting tips, conversation starters for parents to talk WITH their children and shout outs to local or small businesses whose mask I was wearing. The impetus for this was the need to spread public awareness and combat misinformation on social media.

18-day “Mask of the Day” series on Instagram

Like other physicians and scientists advocating on social media, we were trying to get communities in sync so we could knock down those case numbers so we could try to get kids back to school SAFELY.

Where Are You with Your ‘Back to School’ Mindset?

As a parent, I have been feeling so many emotions when I think about school.

Excitement: because it is a new year and my kids will be in 5th and 8th grade. I can feel their excitement building when they talk about getting to see friends. They miss the extracurriculars they had to go without in the Spring. Plus when the kids are in school, it gives me time to focus on work, going to the gym or running errands.

Worry bordering on despair: As I see those case numbers go up in the community, it reminds me that COVID19 is not going away anytime soon. The threat of potential exposure is everywhere. There is just no such thing as a “safe place” other than your own home. Plus, the mixed messages on the news and social media is really upsetting because confusion and mistrust is also everywhere. Mask wearing and social distancing works if a majority adhere to this recommendation and if it is started early. As a nation, we have had no consistent messaging and it has caused chaos.

Stress and Overwhelm: How can my kids still have those social experiences they crave but without the risk? We cannot be on zoom, FaceTime or screens all the time. I know many families, including ours, are feeling guilt and worry over the amount of screen time our kids have had these last 4 months because of remote learning, as a way to prevent social isolation and as a way to pass the time.

How are you feeling about school start?

I am sure you can relate to feeling all these emotions and more. You might have felt them all over the course of a day or the past hour. I even contemplated homeschooling for a short while as I had to fill out my back to school intent survey. It’s like we are walking on a tightrope, feeling at any moment we could fall, but trying hard to maintain one foot in front of the other as we muddle forward.

back to school is like walking a tightrope

It is emotionally exhausting.

Think about last year at this time, school starts meant going back to school shopping for clothes, shoes and supplies. Going to get haircuts for school pictures. It also meant anticipating seeing friends and teachers.

School districts had hoped to give families options for how school start would look like, taking into account personal risk aversion and other risk factors. But as cases surge, hard decisions are being made at the local-level by school boards and administrators, working with their local health departments.

Now, more and more kids are having to start school remotely. Or, if some go back in-person, it will look very different than what kids are used to. But, even then, no one knows for how long it will be before a positive case occurs. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead.

Regardless of what school start will physically look like, life still goes on. And that is why getting in the right MINDSET is key. Mindset is so important because our thoughts can set the stage for what we achieve. If we believe and have the right attitude, we will stay on course–even if it is a bumpy one.

Tips for Getting into the Back To School Mindset

Given the backdrop of uncertainty, here are some practical tips to get in the “right” frame of mind. I’ve organized this post by highlighting what parents & caregivers can do for themselves, followed by strategies parents can use to support their children.

Before we can care for our children and loved ones, we need to take care of ourselves.

It can seem counterintuitive but true.

Learn to tune inward to your own thoughts and feelings.

Make a conscious effort to hone in on your thoughts and how your body is reacting throughout the day. I like to take a moment in the morning, before I physically get up, to do a body scan. I try to empty my mind of all the things I have to do and focus instead on the various sensations in my body. Start with your breath and close your eyes lightly. Scan your body from head to toe. Right before you open your eyes, tell yourself a positive affirmation such as: “I forgive myself always for not being perfect” or “I will learn from any mistakes I make today.” Or you can use a gratitude statement: “I am grateful for the sunshine and my health.”

This exercise is important as we learn to decipher the signals our body is telling us. We can learn to distinguish signals at rest and during physiological stress. When we become attuned to our body, we can catch early warning signs. Learn to stop in the moment, breathe and allow those feelings to pass. In doing so, we learn that through being aware of our thoughts, we can THEN influence the subsequent emotions.

COVID19 has introduced a degree of fluctuating uncertainty every day. Some days are worse than others. By acknowledging that “road bumps” will happen, when it actually does, we are more likely to take it in stride because we expected it.

Talk with your partner or trusted source you rely upon when making decisions

Talk through your own personal and family risk factors, your fears and work-life balance needs. It is important to have this conversation without your children. Explore your tolerance for varying levels of risk. Additional things to think through: Is there anyone in the family who is “high risk”? How does your child handle abrupt transitions or change? Does your child need educational supports? How do you feel about the level of cases and mask wearing happening in your community?

Go to reliable sources of information about case counts in your community.

Check reputable websites and data sources, such as a local or state health department or Centers for Disease Control. Keep an eye on the trend as it may give clues to what schools will decide. If the 7 day average is increasing, it raises the probability children will not be able to go back to school safely. Schools will have to make some hard decisions throughout the school year.

Next, talk WITH your children and help them get a Back to School Mindset.

When children have access to accurate information, it can allay fears and worries. Provide child-friendly information in chunks they can digest rather than ignore or skim over things. Children intuitively pick up on our own worries and uncertainty. Monitor your mood at various time points through the day. It is ok to not always have the answers, but show your child you can focus on what we KNOW.

Invite your child to share what they liked or didn’t like about remote learning last Spring and what they missed or didn’t miss about school

Use the opportunity to point out ways in which they were resilient: “Even though you didn’t like sitting in front of the computer at home, you were able to get through each day and asked for help from me when you needed.” Remind them when they had fun:”Those school spirit days really helped you feel better” or “Those zoom class meetings were nice because you got to see your friends.”

Use these conversations as transitions to talking about what school start will look like

“Just like last Spring was different, this Fall will also be different because the everyone will be wearing masks”

“You won’t be able to just sit wherever for lunch, you might have assigned seating or you might have to eat in your classroom”

“We will be doing more remote learning BUT this time there will be some live lectures and check ins just like you are at school but instead you will be at home.”

Validate your child’s feelings about the “new normal” and empathize when they express sadness, upset or frustration.

Feel with them. Some kids will be upset if they learn their friends are going back in person but your family has chosen to do remote learning.

“Sounds like you don’t want to miss out on what is happening at school. You wish you could be with your friend and that it was like last year. You wish COVID would just disappear.”

Brainstorm other ways you can safely get your child connected with friends outside of school such as one-on-one outside meet ups with masks on, on a zoom call, or during video game time.

But remember, whatever you choose: in-person, virtual, or homeschool. It will be ok. Remind your child that the decision was not made easily or with intent to hurt anyone.

Focus on what you CAN do together to prepare.

By helping your child focus on what you CAN control, it provides some comfort and an action plan. We often feel better when we feel in charge of our circumstance. Focus on the fact that COVID19 is part of our lives. What are the things we can do to stay safe and prevent transmission?

Mask wearing:

  • Practice wearing masks even if they are not going to school in-person. Masks are required when going to the doctor or dentist and may be required elsewhere as mask mandates are adopted.
  • Younger children and those with special health care needs will need to acclimate to wearing masks for longer periods of time.
  • If children are initially resistant, let them pick out several masks of their favorite color, theme, or style.
  • Check for proper fit–it should cover the nose, mouth and chin with no gaps.
  • Make sure the mask doesn’t move or loosen when they talk.
  • Remind your child to breathe normally.
  • Wear your mask when practicing with your child.
  • Set a timer for increasing amount of time
  • Allow your child to wear the mask while doing a desirable activity.
  • Give praise to younger children as they keep hands off their mask.
  • Teach children the proper way to MaskUp and Mask Off. Make sure they only touch the ear loops or strands. Practice with their mask on a lanyard or buy one with a paracord that doubles as lanyard when not in use.
  • Talk them through what to do if they need to sneeze or scratch their nose.
  • For children with eyewear, have them practice and talk through how to handle if glasses fog up.

Hand sanitizer and hand washing:

Remind children to sing the ABCs quietly when washing hands. Classrooms will have hand sanitizer. You might send children their own pocket sanitizer to keep at their desk or locker.

Social distancing:

Measure out 6 feet and 3 feet and mark with tape on the floor. This will give children a visual representation. Have younger children practice showing you these distances by playing fun freeze tag games.

Remote learning:

Set up a dedicated work area for children. Get new school supplies and their own headphones. Share information about the structure of school day as you get it and whether there will be synchronous and asynchronous times of learning. Consider a visual timer to help break up longer stretches of asynchronous work. Some families may want to consider a private tutor if additional supports are needed.

visual timers for back to school remote learning
Visual timer to provide your student with structure and help with staying focused for a set period of time when doing school from home

Special Considerations:

If your child already has an IEP or 504, send an email and talk with your child’s school to see how these supports will be provided once school begins, even if your child does school remotely.

Children with ADHD will need to work on organization, time management, may be take a short breaks to move about and refocus, practice tackling longer projects by first breaking into manageable tasks so to not overwhelm or help with reading comprehension.

Children with anxiety may benefit from a mood check-in throughout the day to allow them to process how they are feeling, provide times to relax and set up pre-specified time for ‘worry’ appointments.

All children can benefit from practicing their back-to-school morning and bedtime routine a week before the official start date to ease back into a new flow after summer.

Make plans to have a brief check in daily to review what went well and not so well

During these uncertain times, it is important to remember that everyone, including school personnel, educators and staff, are under tremendous stress and strain. Talk to your child about the need to share feedback with you at the end of each day. Ask about things that are going well, unexpected or worrisome.

COVID is a lesson in coping with the unexpected. Everyone will need patience and flexibility this school year. We will need to practice self-compassion as we encounter stress in the months ahead. When we focus on the NOW, we prevent overwhelm from creeping in. If we keep an eye on what we need to do each day, we give our minds the “roadmap” to keep one foot in front of the other. By inviting your child to keep talking, we create opportunities to brainstorm and pivot TOGETHER. This will create a FLEXIBLE and POSITIVE mindset through all the feels–the ups and downs and the crazy of school year ahead.

Make sure to download my free Back to School jumpstart kit that includes a visual reminder of expectations and #MaskUp and #MaskOff cue cards to remind your child the importance of mask wearing.

back to school jumpstart kit
Download your free Back to School Jumpstart kit to help you and your child talk about masks, school and back to school safety

RELATED: Return to School During COVID-19 (

I wish all of my readers continued health, safety and patience. Remember, we can all be SUPER without capes and save lives when we #MaskUp!

Catch me on Girlology TV talking with co-founder, Dr. Trish Hutchison about “Helping Her Get a Back-to-School Mindset” (August 5, 2020)

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Written by

Nerissa Bauer

I am a behavioral pediatrician, consultant, child advocate and blogger. I am a wife, mommy to 2 amazing children and 2 golden retrievers. Love cooking, travel, reading, tap and creating.