The Connecticut State Department of Education recently released “Adapt, Advance, Achieve:  Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together,” a comprehensive roadmap for re-opening schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. As recently as last Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont said in his news briefing, “If any state [schools] can open safely I think it’s Connecticut.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Guidance For School Re-Entry “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

But the re-opening goal is daunting and fraught with uncertainty. As the Board of Education works through its re-opening plans and the Wilton Public Schools Re-Entry Subcommittee tackles the complex logistics of executing them, parents can also take steps to help prepare their children for the new school year.

GOOD Morning Wilton consulted several local experts for their best suggestions and practical advice for what parents can be doing right now to help set kids up for success. (And in true back-to-school spirit, we’re using our yellow highlighter so you don’t miss anything.)

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Susan Rappaport, LCSW, is a Wilton psychotherapist helping adolescents and adults manage anxiety, depression, and ADHD. She feels strongly that before parents can help their children prepare for the return to school, they must first have their own emotions in check.

“The most important thing parents can do is to manage their own anxiety,” said Rappaport. “Anxiety is contagious, and it spreads from parent to child.”

Kids are perceptive, says Rappaport, and can sense parental anxiety even if parents aren’t openly discussing it. She offered parents the following advice:

  • Don’t assume your worries about the return to school are the same as your child’s. “Ask your child what they’re concerned about,” said Rappaport. “Then you can correct misinformation and provide reassurances. Lots of reassurances.”
  • Make sure you model good coping skills for your child to see. You can express a concern to your child, Rappaport says, and then show your child a productive response to that concern.
  • Be mindful: stay in the present and avoid what-if scenarios. “When you don’t stay in the present, you do catastrophic thinking, and that’s a slippery slope,” said Rappaport.

Rappaport adds that it’s important to validate your child’s emotions. “It’s ok if they’re afraid. [But then] focus on what we can control. Emphasize the concrete things we can do.”

Kimberly Zemo, LCSW, agrees. “The more skilled we are [as parents] with our social-emotional skills, the better we can help our kids,” she said.

Zemo is the Safe School Climate Coordinator for the Wilton school district and the WHS co-instructional leader on civic and social expectations. She recommends parents pick up a copy of the book, Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, the founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University.

The book explores ways to help people “to identify their emotions, understand the influence of their feelings on all aspects of their lives, and develop the skills to make sure they use their emotions in healthy, productive ways,” according to an excerpt from the book.

Zemo explained that the Wilton school district has adopted the Yale Center’s RULER approach for social and emotional learning (SEL) in its efforts to create and maintain a positive school climate. Research shows the RULER skills described in “Permission To Feel” are associated with desirable outcomes including improved academic performance, less anxiety and depression, and better conflict resolution, among other benefits for students.

Work on Empathy

“Different people have a different threshold for what [risks/situations] they can tolerate,” said Zemo. “We have to be careful about what messages we send,” and avoid blanket statements, such as whether schools should be open or closed, or whether distance-learning platforms are good or bad. (According to a survey of Wilton families, as of last Wednesday, 11% of families plan to not return to in-person learning this fall, and another 22% are still unsure about it. Combined, that’s 1-in-3 Wilton families.)

“With so much coming at us, it’s okay whatever anyone decides is right for them and their circumstances,” Zemo said. She also urges parents not to second-guess their own judgment based on what peers decide, and hopes parents bring a “non-judgmental attitude” to groups who may have opposing views.

Wilton resident and pediatrician Dr. Lori Smith expressed a similar view. “These are individualized decisions,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” when it comes to advice she gives families in her pediatric practice. Complying with safety practices, for example, will be more difficult for some students than others; similarly, some special needs challenges are exacerbated by a remote learning platform, while other students respond well to it.

Acknowledge Uncertainty, Talk Honestly

Gov. Lamont said recently that he will not make a final decision on re-opening schools until August. Although the goal may be to fully re-open, that is only one of three scenarios for which the state is requiring the Board of Ed to develop plans. Remote instruction for all students and a hybrid model are the two other possible scenarios.

So should parents plan for every possibility, too? Rappaport says to avoid the temptation of trying to plan for every scenario; instead, prepare to be flexible.

“There are too many unknowns to really plan [ahead]. We are really preparing to be flexible,” said Rappaport. “Transitions are hard all the time, even without the [coronavirus]. Multiple transitions may be coming.” She reiterated,”The best [thing for parents] is to manage their own stress with so many unknowns.”

The same observation was made by Kerianne Fanelli, Parent Education Co-chair of the Wilton Youth Council. Fanelli noted that “we might have to move to hybrid or distance-learning models at any time,” and added that “[parents] coping with uncertainty and demonstrating flexibility will be extremely important.”

Fanelli encouraged parents to “be honest and upfront with your child… [have] age-appropriate conversations about the fact that things at school are going to look and feel different, but that as their parent, you will continue to support them.”

Having age-appropriate conversations doesn’t mean hiding facts or avoiding unpleasant realities. Refer to the CDC recommendations for how to talk to children about COVID-19 and ways they can avoid getting and spreading the disease. According to the CDC website, “parents… play an important role in helping children make sense of what they hear [about the coronavirus] in a way that is honest, accurate, and minimizes anxiety or fear.”

To help explain the concept and importance of social distancing to children, Dr. Smith suggests the children’s book, “Billie and the Brilliant Bubble” by Tara Travieso.

You can also click on the “Communicating With Students” tab on the Wilton schools’ coronavirus information page for more information on how to  talk to young students, tweens or teens about COVID-19.

Boost Social Skills

Dr. Smith is urging parents to use this time to help their children hone social skills. “If [a child’s] social skills weren’t strong to begin with or they don’t already have a core group of friends, or if they’re anxious, they may be struggling [more] with social isolation.”

Smith noted that social interaction at school may still be limited even if schools re-open, if sports or after-school clubs/activities are curtailed, for example. Parents may need to put extra effort into creating opportunities for social experiences.

The Hangout Spot provides specialized play and social skill instruction rooted in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In a recent webinar hosted by SPED*NET Wilton called “Teaching Kids to Play From a Safe Social Distance”, founders of the Hangout Spot said that technology could be used to advantage for improving social skills under physical distancing conditions.

In addition to video chats or hangout apps, parents can set up virtual playdates to promote “associative play” for both younger kids (with activities like coloring, sandbox play or playdough) and older kids (Lego blocks, cookie decorating), and even “cooperative play” (with games like charades or hangman).

Want a technology-free option? The Hangout Spot founders say old-school tools like telephone calls and writing letters are perfectly fine for practicing social skills.

Zemo points out we are all a little out of practice with our social skills. “There’s an awkwardness right now, even for adults, in socializing again,” she said. “It’s hard to read social cues with masks on.”

Greet Differently

Perhaps nothing has become more awkward than greeting people. Handshakes and hugs are off-limits, and even our smiles are masked.

It’s hard to imagine kindergarten without hugs. And how will children resist the urge to run up to friends they are so thrilled to see after such a long time?

The Hangout Spot founders suggest parents of young students teach “touch-free” greetings before school starts:

  • Come up with different ways to say “It’s so great to see you!”
  • Friends can create a contactless version of a secret handshake

Give Distancing Reminders

It’s hard, frankly, to remember all the social distancing and safety rules (even for adults).

The Hangout Spot suggested parents give frequent reminders to their children, especially right before they go into school or other public places; they should also praise children’s good social distancing behaviors whenever they see it.

Older students need plenty of reminders as well. Zemo said, “It’s good to reinforce, these are the rules and this is why. Look, it’s going to be a while. As things open up, it’s easy to let our guard down. With each shift, we need to remind kids to be vigilant, to keep ourselves safe and the people around us.”

“It’s about empathy, the common good,” she added.

Train For Marathon Mask-Wearing 

Few students are accustomed to wearing masks for long periods of time. Most experts recommend students build mask-wearing stamina slowly over time, so starting now is a good idea.

The American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website  suggests a number of tactics to help young children overcome resistance to mask-wearing:

  • Look in the mirror with masks on and talk about it
  • Put a mask on a favorite stuffed animal
  • Decorate masks so they’re more personalized and fun
  • Show your child pictures of other children wearing them
  • Draw masks on their favorite book character (or in coloring books or other drawings)

Be sure your child understands wearing a mask protects their friends, not just themselves. Show your child this Jack Black video, which makes the point in very endearing fashion.

YouTube video

Cloth masks vary widely in terms of materials, size and design. Dr. Smith suggests having your child sample several different masks to find one that is comfortable and you know fits properly. Smith emphasizes that frequently touching a poorly fitting mask increases risk of virus transmission.

Smith understands that parents may become alarmed if their child complains they can’t breathe with a mask on. Parents can check with their pediatrician if they need assurance that a child is indeed getting oxygen and can breathe properly with a mask on.

Elastics break, masks get lost, and they need to be washed. If possible, get spare masks.

Wash Hands, then Wash Hands Again

While masks get a lot of attention, be sure to keep up handwashing practices. Handwashing throughout the school day will be just as important as mask-wearing. If efforts to wear masks occasionally fail, or in cases where medical conditions prevent mask usage, handwashing takes on even greater importance.

Make sure your kids are doing it right. (Get the best instructions from the CDC.) Make it the last thing they do before leaving the house, and the first thing they do when they get home.

Remind your student to wash her hands before handling a mask (both putting it on and taking it off) and avoid touching his mask and face when it’s on.

In many circumstances, such as on the bus, soap and water won’t be readily available. Stock up on hand sanitizer so your child has the next-best sanitizing alternative with them at all times. Though hard to find in the early days of the pandemic, hand sanitizers are now widely available in local stores. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Keep Minds Engaged

In a June 2020 Board of Ed meeting, Dr. Chuck Smith, the board’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, referred to the “COVID slide,” acknowledging that remote learning during the pandemic resulted in more Wilton students falling below benchmarks than in typical years.

One way parents can help their kids get back (or stay) on track is to understand what summer work has been assigned by your child’s school.

Beyond just assigned work, there are other ways to keep your child’s mind in learning mode in preparation for the new school year. With so many online learning experiences available (and many of them free), now is a great time to explore a new interest, work on a foreign language, or acquire some coding skills (and, in cases of learning gaps, do some “catch up” work on your own).

Visit the family resources page on the Wilton Public Schools’ website for a terrific list of virtual field trips, author/celebrity read-alouds, and other engaging learning opportunities. The list is an absolute masterpiece curated by the Wilton Public Schools Library Learning Commons team. Tour Yellowstone National Park, go behind-the-scenes of the space shuttle, visit the National Gallery in London, hear actor Daniel Radcliffe read Harry Potter, or explore the secret life of coral, just to name a few.

The list of live virtual events, divided for ages K-5 and 6-12, includes free lessons, readings, concerts, and other activities from renowned organizations like the Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Lincoln Center.

These activities are so good, you might even waive the screen time from your usual limit.

Work on Organization Skills

Executive function skills (planning, organization, time management, task initiation, self-motivation, etc.) are more important than ever in the shifting academic environment. SPED*NET Wilton recently hosted a webinar on how to help middle- and high-schoolers develop good organization skills, led by Dr. Mary Murphy, a licensed clinical psychologist from Newtown.

Among Dr. Murphy’s suggestions to help your student prepare:

  • Obtain a supply of the organizational tools your student needs (highlighters, post-its, checklists, calendars, etc.)
  • Prepare a workspace that minimizes distractions
  • Teach your child to compose email communications with teachers
  • Research apps or devices that are designed to help students with planning, to stay on task or improve productivity (Murphy mentioned several in her presentation)

Praise Resilience

Perhaps without realizing it, students living through the coronavirus era may be stronger in one important way: resilience.

“We are living through a remarkable time where we can offer our children opportunities for developing and practicing resilience. Resilience will allow them to thrive in the face of challenges, and this is truly a skill they will need throughout their lives,” said Fanelli in a statement to GMW from the Wilton Youth Council.

“Look at the resiliency skills we’re building!” exclaimed Zemo. Point out occasions where your child overcomes an obstacle, disappointment, or setback and refer to them when your child faces new challenges in the return to school.

Get Help

The experts GMW consulted sent a strong message to parents to get help now if they or their children are struggling or showing signs of anxiety or depression.

Watch for the signs of emotional stress and behavior changes the CDC says may signal a serious issue:

  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating habits (too much or too little)
  • Unhealthy sleeping habits (too much or too little)
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children.
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, bedwetting)
  • Irritability and “acting out”
  • Poor school performance or avoiding schoolwork
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

You can reach out to a pediatrician, licensed social worker or therapist, or contact your child’s school as a first step.