As a new school year begins, many organizations are planning to welcome children back to in-person programs. But experts say we shouldn’t expect to just jump right in where we left off. The last 18 months have taken a toll on children and families. What might have been familiar before the pandemic may now generate anxiety. And continued safety protocols in many locales (e.g. mask wearing, 6 feet of distance) mean children still have to navigate social interactions differently.
Program facilitators and teachers can help children regain their confidence by intentionally planning for a ‘kinda’ familiar experience this fall. Educators Tamara Fyke and Marieke van Woerkom say we need to think of the fall as a time of restoration and healing if we want children to regain a sense of comfortableness and confidence in social settings. We have to be intentional and sensitive to help children rediscover what it means to belong and care for one another in community. But how?
First, don’t assume that pandemic isolation affected all children the same. Some families were able to spend more quality time together, so the return to pre-pandemic schedules may mean the loss of family dinners and relaxed activities that children enjoyed. Other families experienced new or increased economic instability, which may or may not have eased yet. Invite children to reconnect by sharing stories of what they lost or gained while staying home.
Second, plan activities that intentionally rebuild lost social connections. Since hugs, back slaps, and handshakes are still pandemic ‘no-no’s’, ask students to propose alternative ways of acknowledging each other. To address more than a year of missed milestones, hold a Milestones Make-Up Party and celebrate them all at once. You can also reestablish a habit of sharing day-to-day thoughts and events by instituting check-ins each time you meet.
Third, create space for individual and communal grieving. This can be as simple as a regular moment of silence for children to reflect on last year’s challenges and their hopes for this new year. Or it might involve creating a memorial out of images, personal writings, names, quotations, and other things that children gather. Assemble the memorial in a quiet space where children can visit it when they want to remember and reflect.
Fourth, prepare yourself. Sometimes we get so caught up in lesson planning, acquiring materials, promoting registration, and managing programs that we forget our attitudes and energy are also essential resources for children. We, too, have been living through a global pandemic for more than a year and a half. Take time to recharge, both before the program year begins and throughout the coming months. Practice reconnecting socially with your own networks so you are ready to assist children in the same process. Acknowledge your own pandemic feas and losses so you can share them appropriately with children and signal your willingness to accompany them in this ‘kinda’ familiar fall.