Preparing for Back to School in 2021

mom helping her son for back to school 2021

Learn how to prepare your child academically, socially, and emotionally for a return to school in 2021.

As we head into the 2021-2022 school year, fragments of uncertainty remain from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thoughts about children’s physical health and safety, such as germ transmission and mask wearing, are blending with concerns about how to prepare children academically, socially, and emotionally for a return to school in 2021.

Below are four suggested areas where parents and caregivers can help prepare a young child for the return to the school year in 2021:

  • Address nervous feelings
  • Encourage school readiness skills
  • Create routines and schedules
  • Communicate with your child’s teacher

Address Nervous Feelings

After over a year of spending more time than ever at home, young children (and adults!) may have some nervous or anxious feelings about spending time apart when school resumes. Separation anxiety is a typical part of child development in infants and toddlers, but may become more acute this fall as children navigate returning to child care and school after a very irregular school year in 2020-2021.

To reduce separation anxiety:

  • Validate the nerves and set a positive tone. Don’t dismiss your child’s anxiety, but instead, allow your child time and space to express their feelings. Be honest and encouraging about your own feelings, while also setting a positive tone about the future. Say, “Being apart is tricky and I’m going to miss you, too. I’m really proud of you for going to school. What’s something you are looking forward to doing in your classroom?” or “I’ve loved all the time we’ve spent together this year and I feel a little sad that it’s coming to an end. At the same time, I’m really excited for the new things we’re both going to learn and do this year!”
  • Practice separating this summer. Start by having your child spend time in a different room of your home for a period of time, and work up to leaving your child with another trusted caregiver while you leave the house. Be clear about where you are going and how long you will be gone, and return when you say you will. Discuss with your children, and role play, what they can expect to happen during the school day after you leave. This practice and conversation will build trust with your child for when the longer separation of the school day happens in the fall.
  • Establish a beloved goodbye ritual. Create a separation ritual, such as two hugs and a kiss on each cheek or giving your child a special saying, such as “See you later, alligator!” If consistently used, this ritual signals to your child that you are separating, but they are safe and loved. Do not reinforce any potential nervousness by expressing worry at drop off. A confident and loving good-bye will help your child feel safe and know you believe they will be OK.

Encourage school readiness skills

After a year of very irregular school, many parents are wondering if their child is behind academically and socially. Was there learning loss? How will my child know how to make friends after a year of isolation?

There was certainly a loss of classroom time last school year, but learning never stopped for children. There was a loss in learning time, not a loss of learning itself. Children need to be able to gain knowledge and synthesize information, but to be successful someday, children also need the life skills they have been working on throughout the pandemic, such as collaboration, perspective taking, negotiation, flexible thinking, empathy, and creative problem solving.

There were also missed opportunities for social development during the pandemic and parents may be concerned about children remembering how to navigate friendships when they return to school. Remember that children have still been socializing this year! They socialize each day with the other people in their home. There is give and take, back and forth, accommodating each other, reading cues, and playing together. Remind yourself that there has not been a complete absence of learning social skills, it has just looked different this past year. 

Tips for school readiness this summer:

  • PLAY. Allowing your child time for both structured and unstructured play (including outdoor play) provides an opportunity for children to practice literacy, math, problem solving, emotional regulation, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.
  • Encourage responsibility and independence. Children will feel more confident and comfortable showing up for school if they are able to do a few things on their own, such as put on their coat/shoes, or open their own food container. Other ways to promote independence include having your child complete simple household chores or chip away at a longer-term task, such as a jigsaw puzzle or gardening project.
  • Work on strengthening executive function skills for children to use in their classrooms this fall. Executive function skills are the skills that set children up for successful learning and there are many ways to work on these at home. These skills include things like being able to remember and use bits of information, the ability to master impulses, stay focused, and think before acting, and the capacity to switch gears and adjust.
  • Explore math and literacy concepts. Younger children best learn the early academic concepts of math and reading/writing when they are naturally woven throughout the day. Let go of the notion that education only happens in a structured, formal classroom setting and notice the learning opportunities in your everyday routines. Making breakfast, reading bedtime stories, or walking around the block are all opportunities to build vocabulary, sequence, counting, sorting skills.
  • Ask your child open-ended questions to promote more complex thinking and language skills. Examples include:
    • “What do you think will happen next?”
    • “What were you thinking when you did it that way?”
    • “What do you notice?”

Create routines and schedules

Having some predictable structure and rituals goes a long way to support children’s emotional well-being. Here are some suggestions to smooth this transition and encourage a back to school mindset. Start gradually, knowing that the transition to your new schedule might not be perfect. Talk with your child about what seems to be working well, and where there are opportunities to improve the process.

  • Establish clear routines to eliminate daily decision-making and increase efficiency. Being able to complete the routine without parental prompting gives children a feeling of accomplishment and promotes accountability. For young children who aren’t able to read yet, visual routines (with pictures) give a sense of independence. As children get older, visual routines can be replaced with simple checklists until a habit is created
  • Talk positively about the new routine. Children often adopt the attitudes held by the adults in their lives, so it’s important to be a role model of positivity even in times of uncertainty
  • Practice your new routine. Begin your new back-to-school schedule three to five days prior to the first day. Remember to wake up early enough to incorporate time for everything that needs to get done such as breakfast, packing lunches, gathering belongings, catching the bus or carpool, etc. For preschool and older children, let them know that a transition is coming so it’s not a big surprise on the first morning. Talk through any questions they may have.
  • Maintain a bedtime and sleep schedule. Children might balk at this, but it’s healthy to maintain this normalcy to wind down and cue the brain and body it’s time for sleep. Changes to sleep schedules have the potential to affect our emotions and behavior. If possible, spend 3 to 5 days prior to your child's first day on the new schedule. Set your alarms with enough time to wake your child up and begin your new routine. Get up and get ready just like you will when you return to school.
  • Don't neglect your morning routine. What is it that you, as the adult, need to do to get your day started? Adjust the time you wake up in the morning to help you start your day feeling calm and unrushed.

Communicate with your child’s teacher

Going back to school after a tumultuous year will require teachers and families to work together and communicate even more effectively. Staying informed and connected may reduce your feelings of anxiety and provides a way for you to support your child’s learning at home. 

  • Be proactive about communication. Establish positive communication with your child’s teachers right away. Find out their preferred method of communication and the best times to reach them. Determine your questions and ask for details up front, which will eliminate many problems later.
  • Work collaboratively with teachers. If you have questions or concerns throughout the year, address them in a non-confrontational manner, and be open-minded to partner towards a solution.
  • Be supportive of your child’s teachers. Remember that none of us have been through this pandemic before and teachers are working to provide students with the best possible learning opportunities under the circumstances. Speak positively about them in front of your children and remember to express your gratitude to teachers directly.
  • Focus on your child’s best interests. Most importantly, remember that when parents and teachers work together, a child has a team of caring and consistent adults who are committed to bringing out the child’s best!

The 2021-2022 school year will be a return to that “new normal” we all hoped for the past 18 months. The resilience skills our children have learned will carry them through. Good luck to all our young learners and their caregivers as we head into another transition!

Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

August 1, 2021

About the Author

Teacher reading to a toddler boy and girl

Whether you’re looking for parenting advice, or trying to figure out how to bring learning from the classroom to the family room, let Bright Horizons early education experts be your trusted, knowledgeable resource. Get our weekly newsletter for all things early child development—from the benefits of pretend play to at-home STEM activities, and teaching kindness—along with encouragement for every stage of your parenting journey.