Dear Therapist:

As the school year hopefully begins, I am somewhat concerned about my elementary school children who have not been on a regular structure/schedule since Purim. I wonder if there is any advice you can give us on how to manage the transition back to normalcy? Or maybe it's nothing and the kids will bounce right back into it? Also, are there any signs we should look out for that would indicate an issue?



I’m sure that many parents share your concerns. Whenever there is a break in normal patterns, it can be difficult to get back into the swing of things. This is true for adults as well as for children. Most adults are able to properly consider the future while living in the present. This means that they are able to temper their current experience with their understanding and plans for the future.

Young children, however, tend to live in the present without necessarily acknowledging or planning for future occurrences. This can make it difficult for them to transition from one experience to another that is dramatically different. Nonetheless, the timing of ostensible in-person schooling can work in our favor. Even in a normal year, children transition from two months of relatively unstructured days to highly rigid, structured school schedules. If regular school sessions resume after the summer—at the normal start of the school year—this can help to make the transition feel more ordinary.

With regard to the return to school, I can think of three basic differences between this year and years past. Firstly, the amount of time during which normal structure has been abandoned is significantly longer this year than in the past. Secondly, during previous summers, despite a shift in daily schedule there was often more structure than there is this summer. Finally, we shouldn’t overlook the impact of the sense of abnormality that has pervaded our society. In addition to concrete changes like school and store closings, the popular media and social conversation constantly highlights the fact that things are different.

Most people thrive in a predictable environment. It allows us to relax and feel a sense of security about the future. For children, this sense of security is crucial. They need to feel that everything is—and will be—okay. They need to know what they can expect. When things are up in the air, this can be very disconcerting.

I will first address the length of time that things have been abnormal and the particular lack of structure this summer. One thing that we can do is try and wind down similarly to the way that the change in structure wound up. Our children didn’t go immediately from a normal school schedule to running wild. They transitioned first to home schooling, then perhaps to less rigid classes as the summer approached. They may have then gone to a camp program for a few weeks. Perhaps at some point, they became more unstructured. If, over the next couple of weeks, we can ease our children into a more structured environment, this can help to mitigate the effects of the change to school scheduling.

Perhaps the most significant aspect is the emotional impact of the pervasive sense of abnormality that seems to affect us all. Our job as parents is to normalize this situation as much as possible. Try and do things that you would do in a typical year. Buy school clothing and supplies. Otherwise prepare for school in the normal fashion. Try and discuss school as you have in past years. Our children will take their cues from us. If we show them that despite the current climate their school year will be treated in a normal fashion, it will be easier for them to feel comfortable with the transition.

It can be normal to see minor changes in mood and behavior during the beginning of any transition. As long as any changes appear to be in line with the level and type of transition—and they are of short duration—these are not likely to become problematic. Any obvious signs of trouble adjusting to a change in schedule (like a significant negative change in mood or behavior) should be addressed.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317