“Mom, my friends are real!”
As told by a Santa Barbara Unified School District staff person, this exclamation came from a kindergartner who had never set foot in her classroom. When she came onto campus for the first time on March 1, she discovered that the classmates she knew through Zoom were more than mere pixels.
For her, this was a revelation.
The current class of kindergartners is so young that nearly a quarter of their life has been lived behind a mask. All of their formal education has happened through a screen.
As my colleague described this exchange, the one-liner packed a punch — both endearing and heartbreaking.
I was trying to imagine the feelings of that kindergartner during an afternoon stroll recently. She was likely bursting with excitement to play with her peers, but maybe also afraid to go near them.
I wondered how her parents were feeling about seeing their little one off to school — maybe grateful, maybe stressed out.
I pictured a teacher whose heart and soul comes alive with students during circle time. I also pictured a teacher who has a family member at home in a high-risk group for COVID-19.
As I walked, I came upon the sights and sounds of children joyfully playing on the playground at my neighborhood elementary school. The giggles and laughter overwhelmed me. The risks and uncertainty stopped me in my tracks. The whole thing was both grounding and surreal.
For most families in our community, the return to in-person instruction at local elementary and secondary schools is underway. While my daughters wait until April to meet their teacher face-to-face, I’m trying to understand how this transition feels — for myself and for the children in my life.
I’m realizing that this transition is both exciting and scary, both relieving and worrying, both energizing and exhausting. This is a transition that requires us to embrace Both/And.
I’ve written about back-to-school transitions in the past. A typical back-to-school season in the fall is tiring and emotionally draining for children and adults. As the academic year unfolds and the calendar fills with assignments, after-school activities and social engagements, we’re advised to practice self-care, maintain routines and spend quality time together.
It is both useful to keep that advice in mind and also naïve to suggest that this moment is comparable to any other back-to-school return to campus.
It seems redundant to say it, but we cannot obscure the conditions before us: This giant shift in our day-to-day lives comes one year into a pandemic. The global crisis has been a traumatic experience to each of us in different ways — whether we have mourned a loved one, a job or a milestone celebration, the collective loss is beyond words.
To make this transition successful, we need to approach it with a trauma-informed lens. The disruption of the last 12 months has indelibly impacted the bodies and minds of parents, teachers, support staff and students alike.
Here are a few strategies to consider:
» Remember that children take their cues from adults. Take steps to care for yourself so that you can project calm and be present when your child needs you.
» Discuss and validate the emotions that everyone in your household has about returning to school. Find healthy ways to cope with the negative ones — like exercising or practicing mindfulness.
» Be realistic about what is going on. It is no secret that school will look and feel different. Have conversations about safety measures — both to educate your child and to mitigate their anxiety about COVID-19.
» Stay flexible as conditions might change, but also celebrate the positive outcomes of being back on campus!
Lastly, reach out for support if you need it — because this will be hard. The trauma of the last year has been tremendous and each student, teacher and family will be affected differently.
» If your child displays significant behavior changes (like excessive irritability or withdrawing from things they usually enjoy), reach out to your child’s teacher for resources, including CALM’s mental health counselors on SBUSD’s K-6 campuses.
» If you are struggling personally, connect with a friend or loved one to tell them what is going on. Seek therapy if you are able. Children rely on positive relationships with caring adults to build resilience and navigate adversity. Caring for your own mental health is an essential way to care for yourself and your family.
As we stumble upon the Both/Ands of this transition, we might feel off balance in ways that strain relationships with our children or with our adult peers.
I encourage parents and teachers to be kind to each other and to be kind to themselves as we inevitably encounter new challenges. Teachers have displayed more resilience this year than was reasonable to expect, and we owe our community’s educators a debt of gratitude for the commitment they show to our students’ success and safety every single day.
I am both mindful of the stress teachers face right now and in awe of their determination and spirit.
As we cautiously dream of what the post-pandemic world will look like, I am inspired by and hopeful about the return to school. No doubt, it will test us individually and collectively.
But I trust that, with strong relationships, trauma-informed schools and real friends in our corner, we will make the most of this school year and triumph over our trauma.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.