Coping with Back-to-School Uncertainty

MarcilieBack to School, Leadership, long term parenting, Parenting and ManagementLeave a Comment

A month ago, my son’s college announced that school was on, and students should plan to arrive on campus on August 17. Yippee!

A week later, that plan was reversed. Dang.

A week after that, the dean of the music school (where my son studies) announced that all music performance majors would be given priority and attend school in person. Hooray! 

Only 4 days later, my son learned that even his program would be 100% online this fall. Ugh. 

My brother recently read a 17-page report about his school district’s plan for reopening and concluded that he could come to no conclusions.

Will children go back to school and if so, how? Will we feel confident in their safety if they do?

Will we ever know for sure what the Fall of 2020 will look like until we get there? Probably not. And even then, it will change.

I’m a planner. I feel anxious and a bit hopeless when I look out into the Fall and see fog. As the COVID-19 pandemic rebounds or continues to worsen in many parts of the world, back-to-school preparation will be anything but the usual.

I’ve had to dig into my “varsity level” coaching toolbox to equip myself with resources to enter the fog without freaking out or slipping into despair.

Here are a few tips and tools that have helped me to cope with back-to-school uncertainty. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

For your children:

1.  Increase certainty and predictability where you can. 

When children don’t know what to expect, the brain naturally assumes that it might be bad (the brain scans its environment for threats 5 times per second according to the NeuroLeadership Institute).

Meltdowns, defiance, clinginess, and other “misbehaviors” are far more likely in this uncertain state. On the other hand, with certainty, the brain can relax into calm, safety, and receptivity. (Read more about The NeuroLeadership Institute/David Rock’s SCARF model and certainty here.)

For many of us, we don’t know what school will look like this Fall. But we can still create some predictability and structure in the form of consistency, routines, and a daily schedule.

If you don’t already have consistent bed and wake times (that ensure adequate sleep) for your children, that’s a great place to start. The body thrives when wake and sleep cycles are regular: better mood, better digestion, even better heart health, according to (Go here to learn how much sleep your child needs.)

As for routines, you won’t find a parenting guidance model that doesn’t advocate them. Morning and bedtime are particularly difficult transition times for children making these prime candidates for routines and even better, routine charts. Read about how to make routines more effective here. 

A “school-at-home” schedule that children help to create will also improve your child’s sense of certainty helping them to feel safe, calm, and more cooperative. Here’s an example of the daily routine from one parent who has done homeschooling for years.

2.  Double down on building a strong connection with your children.

A strong, connected relationship with your child is truly your most powerful parenting tool — to increase the odds of cooperation, but more importantly to help your child feel safe and unconditionally loved during uncertain times. 

Special Time, hugs, family meals, family meetings, “date nights,” and even just putting your phone down to fully listen (use GEMS to help you) feeds connection.

My kids are older (13, 17, & 20) and frankly don’t want me around as much as they used to so I really have to make an effort to connect. I actually have “give 7 hugs” on my to-do list for today. What’s on your list? 

For you: 

3.  Model adaptability and calm for your children. 

Anxiety fills the air and many experts predict that a mental illness pandemic will follow COVID-19. As parents, we have a unique opportunity to fill our homes (and perhaps beyond) with a sense of calm, stability, adaptability, and resilience. 

Mirror neurons ensure that children pick up on our energy: is it frantic or calm, despairing, or hopeful?

Do you scream in front of your kids when your school district changes plans AGAIN, or do you name your feelings e.g., “that’s incredibly frustrating,” and let your kids know that you’ve got this, even if the school district doesn’t:

“We’re going to need to get creative, but we’ll do everything we can to make sure you’re learning and enjoying school life this fall — whatever it looks like.”

You can’t pretend to have it all together but you can get support from other sources (a friend, a coach, a therapist, your partner) so that when you show up for your children, you have less stress and anxiety to mirror onto them. This leads me to my next tip…

4.  Prioritize your mental and physical well-being. 

This tip probably sounds so cliche — I’ve heard it so many times. But sadly, for stretched-thin parents in a pandemic, it’s worth repeating.

Are you caring for yourself the way you care for your children? Adlerian psychologists (Adlerian psychology underlies Positive Discipline) consider self-care to be an essential parenting tool because it enables parents to then care for others more effectively.

Getting enough sleep isn’t just about you.

When I’m well-slept and well-fed, and when I feel good about how I’m moving my body, it’s so much easier for me to show up with warmth, confidence, and clarity. My children need these things from me now more than ever.

5.  Do your best to live in the present moment. 

Relentless focus on the future (or rumination about the past) leads to anxiety and depression. I don’t need more of those right now!

I love the “Circles of Influence” model (originally from Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) because it helps me remember to focus on what I CAN control, which is not the future or the past, and definitely not whether my school will open in exactly the way I want.

I’ve been trying to build “present-living” skills through meditation and mindfulness. Giving myself permission to just sit and focus on my breathing or a beautiful flower feels compassionate (yes, it’s OK to rest your mind and body for a bit) and practical as meditation and mindfulness have proven mental and physical health benefits including a stronger immune system (which could come in handy right now, folks!)

6.  Finally, stop resisting uncertainty.

The truth is, life has always been uncertain. We’ve got more uncertainty now but rather than hate it and push it away, perhaps we can open the door to it, offer it a comfortable seat on the couch, and accept that it will be taking some extra space in the house for a while. 

If you missed my messages the last few months, find tactics for surviving school closures here and 4 ways to lighten your load (and expect less from yourself and others during this uncertain and stressful time) here.

What tips do you have for dealing with uncertainty these days? I’d love to hear them in the comment section at the end of this blog.

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