I knew the bad news was coming. Even so, when we got the email from the principal of my daughter’s new high school announcing that students won’t be attending school on campus, my heart sank. Against all reason, I had hoped that somehow students could be in school at school. Even for a few hours, outside, socially distanced, and wearing masks. No such luck. Instead, Molly will be starting high school alone in her room in front of a screen. It’s where she’s spent most of the past five months.

If I am feeling this down about the news, I can only imagine what this feels like for her. Starting middle and high school are rites of passage fraught with anticipation and anxiety. But due to the pandemic, incoming 6th and 9th graders are starting at a new school without the in-person experiences — like walking the halls for the first time and introducing themselves to classmates — that foster lasting connection and community. Instead, they are living most of their lives online at a time when young adults should be out in the world socializing and developing their identities. “Now I’m not even nervous about starting high school,” Molly said when she learned the news. “I’m just sad.”

Given how grateful I am that my family is healthy and safe, am I blowing this out of proportion? No, says Jennifer Winward, a lecturer in the Psychology department at the University of California San Diego, who is currently helping parents and “quaranteens” navigate this strange new world of isolated education. “Parent’s concerns for these age groups are not overblown. These entering freshmen won’t have the same connections to teachers, won’t get the same academic and emotional support, and won’t have the same opportunities to build friend groups.”

But with the right encouragement and support, incoming 6th and 9th graders can find ways to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. Here’s what experts say you can do to help.

Acknowledge your child’s reality

Your child is doing something that no other tweens or teens of their generation (or yours) have had to do: learn and socialize and find community in a virtual setting during a pandemic. “Give them props for their perseverance, hard work, and inventive thinking in school and out,” says psychologist John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. And no matter what, recognize that what they are doing is hard. This could mean simply saying, “You’re right. This is difficult. I want you to be able to talk openly about how you are feeling.”

Here’s a tip: Don’t do what I did. Don’t remind your child that Anne Frank had it much worse. Comparing suffering never does the trick, especially with teens!

Foster a sense of normalcy by creating some routines

Toni Setteducato, dean of students at Alta Vista Middle School in San Francisco, says she’s observed that for those students whose parents are able to maintain some sense of normalcy and a schedule at home, kids feel more stabilized and don’t feel like, ‘Everything has turned upside down in my world.’”

This might look like keeping regular bedtime and wake-up times (even on days they don’t have to log in to a class at 8:30 am), getting dressed (at least their top half), sitting down to regular meals, and getting regular exercise. These routines will do wonders for your tween or teen, helping them to focus when they are in school and switch gears when they are not.

Make sure there’s a social outlet

Peers play an essential role in tweens’ and teens’ growing independence. Alta Vista Middle School’s Setteducato, says that finding ways to build a peer group for new 6th and 9th graders is vital. “They are all entering a brand-new community where they won’t have physical contact,” so finding creative ways to make friends will help your tween or teen feel “they aren’t on an island alone.”

Duffy recommends encouraging (even gently pushing) kids to engage in a school activity outside of academics. Some schools are proactively contacting students about which clubs are going virtual and which activities are available — in person (socially distanced) or online. But if they aren’t, your child may need your support in reaching out to the school. This may also be a time for your child to create an online group or club of their own — be it around giving back to the community, gaming, athletics, or any shared interest. Finding peers with whom they share something in common will help them cement a social base that will continue when they return to school in person. (Read more about how to help your child socialize in the time of social distancing.)

If you’ve ever urged your child to do an extracurricular activity, it will come as no surprise that many children will push back. In fact, says Duffy, it’s almost guaranteed that “about 90 percent of them will,” he says with a laugh. “They might even tell you, ‘Leave me alone! My life sucks.’ At this point, it’s appropriate for a parent to say, ‘Okay, but it’s not good for you to just be in your room texting friends. You can be mad at me and tell me to leave you alone, but in the end I’m going to insist on some activity.’”

Some schools are even allowing some sports to meet and train, albeit with the requisite social distancing and masks. Not only does this get kids outdoors and away from screens, it also gives them a chance to socialize with other students.

Lean into online learning

Freshmen should treat their virtual classroom like they would a real one, Winward says. “Given the potentially less-close relationship with teachers, freshmen really need to engage in this virtual environment. Teachers will recognize those kids who are engaged and celebrate it. Students can demonstrate this by being on time to class, coming prepared with informed questions, staying on top of assignments, and showing that they are paying attention.”

For some kids, distance learning last spring wasn’t as effective as it could have been. If your child is feeling behind, you can encourage them to catch up this fall. Winward says math tends to be the biggest academic challenge. “If you ask most kids what subject they’re worried about, usually it’s math.” While this will mean even more time online, kids can spend even a few minutes a day reinforcing math basics from the previous year to help get them to where they feel they’re on solid footing. Khan Academy, which has offers hundreds of free math courses, is a viable option. Asking their math teacher for some basic review work to help them succeed this year is another great idea, and can help the teacher get to know your child a bit better.

Pleasure reading is also essential. While it can be a hard sell to get your child to “sit down and read a book” when TikTok and Instagram beckon, Winward says what’s important is that your child read something, no matter what it is: Graphic novels, a book on fashion, whatever your child is passionate about. Reading news and commentary online is great, but if your child is easily distractible (and keeps notifications on and a million tabs open), you may want to mandate some non-screen reading time, too. (Here are some of GreatSchools’ recommended reading lists for 6th graders and 9th graders. )

Get outside of themselves

Alta Vista Middle School’s Setteducato says that the best antidote for doing well during these difficult times is to also help your child help others. She asks students, “What are things outside of the box that you can do with your time, great things that can come out of this moment?”

Duffy explains that helping your child shift focus (without guilt or shame) outside themselves and helping others can be transformative so it’s not “just about this awful moment, the pandemic.” He has seen many tweens and teens shake themselves out of their inertia and feelings of helplessness by helping others. “I saw kids who were really hurting, but when BLM came to the fore, they had something to rally for and were invigorated and inspired. A girl I work with started putting on virtual princess parties to raise money for the hospital where her friend passed away. When she talks about this project, she is in another space completely.”

Any final words of advice from the expert, an actual high school freshman? Even if they are sad about it, “Let them have their emotions,” says Molly. “Your kids don’t need to be happy 24/7. Just letting them know you are there for them is a lot.”

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Updated: September 8, 2020