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Returning to School: Advice for Helping Teens Adjust to In-Person Learning

The last time my son stepped foot in a school building, he was in seventh grade. Now, 18 months later, he’s returning to school, this time to start high school. In the grand scheme of things, 18 months isn’t long, but when you think about the changes that middle schoolers go through from seventh grade to high school, it seems like a century.

But, alas, these are the times we are living through. As my son makes the transition to high school, he’s also making the transition from learning at home in his PJs to learning in a bustling school building. I know kids are resilient, but I can’t help but worry.

I worry about him socializing with kids he’s only interacted with on a computer screen. I worry about him going from a life where he can roll out of bed and be “present” at school to needing to be up and ready to board a school bus at 7:15 a.m. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I know I’m not the only parent going through this difficult transition, so I connected with experts who offered some much-needed advice.

How to Deal With Those Early Morning Wake-ups

Anyone with a teen knows that mornings are just not their thing. Remote learning meant sleeping a little later (how many teens slept until 10 minutes before class started?!) and getting to skip the morning routine. It may sound silly, but of all the schedule changes that returning to school brings, those early morning wakeups are my biggest concern.

Dr. Lisa Lombard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with teens, says that having a collaborative discussion with your teen is a great way to start. Begin by asking them what sort of things they think will help ease their transition. Giving them agency in the matter helps a lot. Then, have them come up with tactics like setting their clothes out the day before and packing their backpack in advance.

Although you may think your child has outgrown it, teens still need a regular bedtime, says Dr. Nikki Lacherza-Drew, a licensed psychologist in New Jersey. “Start having your teen go to bed at this time about a week before school starts so their body can slowly get used to the change,” she recommends.

I can definitely see some resistance from my teen on this one, but it’s something worth trying. If all else fails, getting up at 6 a.m. for a week will probably just naturally get him on an earlier schedule. Fingers crossed.

Getting Teens Back into a Study Mindset

Not only are kids who were fully remote going to have to deal with more jam-packed schedules, but they’re also going to have to deal with more rigorous academic standards when returning to school, says Laurie Kopp Weingarten at One-Stop College Counseling.

Many schools eliminated midterms and finals during remote learning, and many didn’t have tests at all. “One of my students told me today that his quizzes were ‘open notes, open friends,’” Weingarten said. “Apparently teachers did this because they felt they would be unable to curtail cheating on the exams.”

Weingarten says that parents should be aware that some kids will need extra academic support this school year. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to contact teachers, counselors, and tutors as soon as their teens show signs of struggle.

Picking a set homework time each day is vital for teens, says Dr. Lacherza-Drew. “Homework should not be the last thing your teen is doing before bed and they shouldn’t be staying up until 2 a.m. writing a paper,” she says. Even if the set homework time is just a rule that homework must be done before Xbox or Netflix, structure can help teens learn to prioritize.

Dr. Lombard agrees that routines are important and reminds us to praise our kids when we see them taking action toward becoming more organized, even if these actions are small. “Offer loads of verbal praise when you see your teen connecting cause and effect in terms of their behavioral world,” she says.

What About Their Social Lives?

Teens who have mainly been interacting with others through screens will have to brush up on their social skills, says Dr. Lacherza-Drew. This may be an anxiety-producing process, and teens who have never experienced anxiety before may start experiencing it now.

Dr. Lombard recommends reminding your teen that they are not alone. So many of their peers are going to be feeling the same way. You can also remind them that practice makes perfect. Over time, all those rusty social skills will get refined.

You can even help them plan a few things to say to their friends once they see them again. Role play with them, and help them prepare pre-planned answers to questions kids commonly encounter as the school year starts, such as, “What did you do on your summer break?”

“The goal is to have a few social interactions happen in a way that feels ‘automatic,’” Dr. Lombard offers. “This builds confidence and let’s the brain think about other things, rather than possible social embarrassment.”

Saying “This Is Hard” Goes a Long Way

Simply acknowledging how hard returning to school will be for our kids will go a long way in helping them adjust, says Dr. Lacherza-Drew. “The transition back to school is usually a difficult transition, but after the last 18 months, this school year might be more difficult,” she says. “Be real with them.”

I love this advice. As a parent, my instinct is often to do everything I can to make life easier for my kids. But sometimes you just have to acknowledge that something is going to be hard, and that’s okay.

Have Hope

Dr. Lombard reminds me not to dwell on the parts of returning to school that are going to be challenging. “Rather than discuss all the things that could go wrong, discuss things that could go right,” she suggests. “What are they looking forward to, who will they reconnect with, who might they meet, what extracurriculars are on the horizon, etc.?”

This is definitely an attitude I need to adopt. Living through the pandemic has made it hard to keep a hopeful perspective. But the truth is, there is so much for our children to look forward to this year.

I can’t wait for my son to reconnect with friends and get to experience a slice of “normal” again. And I know he’ll make it through the changes it will take to get there, early morning wakeups and all.

Wendy Wisner

Wendy Wisner is a mom, a writer, and a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books) and her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, xoJane, Role Reboot, Your Tango, and elsewhere.

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