One of the most defining qualities of elementary schoolers is their radiant positive energy. Ask them if they want to do something and the answer is generally an enthusiastic yes! Children’s brain development explains this eagerness for experience. Kids’ brains at this stage are super-efficient learning machines, processing information from the world around them as quickly as they can take it in. Confined to home with schools shut, your child may be climbing the walls, desperate for a bigger venue.

Caged social butterflies

After years of bonding primarily with their family, kids begin to focus on building deep friendships in elementary school. By 3rd and 4th grade, kids may have narrowed their social circle to a tight-knit group of best friends. Losing playtime with friends and peers doesn’t just mean losing out on fun, it means losing an important way that kids this age learn social and emotional skills. Your elementary schooler may also be missing the special adults in their lives: teachers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even the nice store clerk.

All of these losses of daily connection may be leaving your child lonely, even if they can’t express it. Grief over the loss of friends, extended family, and teachers can show itself in meltdowns, upsets, defiance, or irritability. “Behavior is how kids communicate,” says Rebecca Branstetter, school psychologist, author, and co-creator of a social-emotional learning course for parents. “They’re not giving you a hard time. They’re telling you that they are having a hard time.”

How to help your elementary school child cope

Help your child touch base with the people they miss most, perhaps with a Facetime call or a Zoom playdate with one or two friends, cousins, or other family members. If your child is missing their teacher, Branstetter encourages parents to reach out to the teacher to ask if their child can connect with them one-on-one. “Even just a couple of minutes can mean the world to a kid,” she says. “Teachers are doing the best they can to connect with kids individually, but it’s hard to connect to kids individually in a whole-class Zoom. What kids need to know from their teachers right now is, ‘I see you. I miss you, too.’”

Worries about the future

Elementary schoolers are industrious planners who thrive on structure and routine. Full of big ideas, and they like to know what’s happening next. And as they get older, they can think farther into the future (and ask more questions about it). Unfortunately, we’re in uncharted territory. No one knows exactly how school will change in the next few months or years.

Chatty and sensitive, elementary schoolers want to talk about what’s going on. And while it’s normal for parents to be worried, keep in mind that your worries are contagious. When kids overhear anxious conversations about what-ifs, it’s likely to stress them out. This means that conversations about the future are a balancing act, based on the age and temperament of your child. “You have to know your own child and how much information they can take in,” Branstetter says.

How to help your elementary school child cope

Model resilience and try to avoid spreading worry. “When you get overwhelmed with the big ‘what-ifs,’ change that to ‘what is right now,'” says Branstetter. “Just look at the next 24 hours. Today we’re doing distance learning. When we find out what’s going to happen in the fall, we’ll adjust to that.

The more you can adopt that mindset, says Branstetter, the more calm your child will feel. “Right now is an opportunity to connect with our kids and teach them how to cope with stress. That’s more important than learning about Isosceles triangles right now.”

What does it mean for your rule-obsessed kid that none of the old rules apply?

Most elementary schoolers are very interested in knowing the rules and they’re even more interested in making sure everyone follows them. Now there’s a whole new set of rules, and they seem to be changing all the time. Your child may have questions about what’s allowed, particularly if they see others following different social distancing practices than your family is. And if something strikes them as unfair, they’re sure to call it out.

How to help your elementary school child cope

When your child points out someone not wearing a mask or climbing on the playground equipment, Branstetter suggests first praising their good observation skills. Then, she says, you can explain that every family makes their own choices, and that your family is choosing to do what you believe is safest right now. If your child complains about a friend getting to do something that your child isn’t allowed to do, Branstetter says, keep in mind that there’s a hidden message there that is less about what’s fair and more about your child missing their friends. “Once you’ve empathized with your child and validated that need, you can engage your child in some creative virtual play date ideas.”