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Expert Alert: Preparing Kids for School

Little child reading a book
August 3, 2020

Holding a space for “what if” as we think about school & children. 

Children have experienced unprecedented change in the last six months. Now, on the cusp of a new school year, a UMD professor is sharing ways to support children in developmentally-appropriate ways. 

Molly Harney is an associate professor of early childhood education. She researches early brain development, emotional development, and the impact of adversity and trauma on early development.

As Minnesota school districts announce their teaching formats for the 2020-21 school year, Dr. Harney answers key questions.

1. Going back to school is a huge and anxiety-inducing shift for kids during standard times, and this year might be especially difficult. How can caregivers prepare kids for this transition?

This is so true. First, watch for signs that a child is stressed– things like trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, trouble concentrating, and new fears. But don’t be afraid of daily stressors like family chores and getting along with others. 

The majority of stressors are predictable. One reason children are feeling unmoored is because the predictability is missing. The rhythm of the day is gone which can impact children’s sleep patterns, eating habits, physical exercise, and even social interactions with peers.

Predictable stress helps children feel safe and supports the development of resilience. In most cases, what  children can predict, they can manage. By building predictability into children's lives, we support regulation and in turn encourage resilience. 

2. How can adults help children?

Throughout their childhood, but especially now, children need support from adults who can help them navigate. These relationships can help children develop life-long resilience and coping strategies. 

Understand that pushing academics too hard contributes to dysregulation for a number of families, so it's important to step back from adding too much stress. 

3. Do you have any other advice for caregivers?

If your child is heading back to school full time:

It’s reasonable to assume that all students will experience some anxiety about returning to school. Some things that can help:

  • Establish routines that build a sense of security

  • Create a small community for your children by pairing them with a buddy or two

  • Plan a favorite activity or distraction outing

If students are participating in a hybrid education, it may take longer for students to adjust to new routines. Parents can:

  • Share clear expectations on days the child is at home

  • Remember that learning can happen through everyday activities and play

  • Encourage children to spend time exploring topics they’re interested in

4. Anything else that you'd like to add?

Distance learning has emerged as a parental stressor this year, but parents’ number one job is to be a loving support for their children. Everything else will fall into place.

Some key advice:

  • Partner with children as they navigate the new landscape 

  • Encourage activities that support emotional regulation

  • Encourage regular sleep and exercise

  • Bring as much predictability into focal points as possible

  • Consider family stressors

  • Pay attention to isolation 

  • Look for the opportunities 

  • Doing simple things

  • Development of empathy 

  • Engage in learning by cooking, planting, building 

  • Care for others 

  • Develop an understanding about the value of money 

  • Learning to value growing and eating good food 

  • Limit screens

  • Pay attention to the development of resilience 

  • Spend time with family

  • Learn to value and embrace the slow pace 

Contact Information:

Molly A. Harney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

University of Minnesota Duluth


Learn more about UMD's Early Childhood Education program