Nobody knows exactly how or when our children will be back in the classroom or what safety measures schools will take to limit the transmission of COVID-19. What we do know is that when in-person school resumes, every aspect of the school day will probably be affected. The key things to model for kids of all ages? Calmness, flexibility, and a willingness to take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Kids between the ages of 4 and 7 may feel anxious about the unknown, especially if the adults around them are behaving anxiously. You can honestly tell your child that very few kids are getting sick with the coronavirus. Calmly reassure them that adults are working hard to figure out the best ways to keep everyone healthy and that kids can help by following the rules at school. Much is still unknown about how likely young children are to transmit the virus to other children and adults. The biggest challenge for this age group will be controlling their impulses, whether to to hug their friends or tug off their masks.

Superheroes wear masks

We don’t yet know whether early elementary school students will be required to wear masks at school. Wearing a mask for a young child may seem extreme and unnatural but children at this age are incredibly adaptable and will typically want to mimic what their parents do. If your child’s school requires them, find one that fits comfortably and practice wearing it at home. Explain that just like a new sweater, masks may need getting used to but children across the world are wearing them to keep them safe. Depending on your child’s personality, you can use different strategies to get your child on board: 1) make them part of your child’s play (create masks for a doll or action figure), 2) let your child choose a design from the internet of their favorite superhero, 3) make masks together with their favorite material. If your child is on the spectrum or extremely sensitive to sensory inputs (This tag is itchy!), getting your child to wear a mask will likely be a longer process so start early and introduce them first through play. (For more tips on helping kids wear masks, go here.)

Let’s put some new tunes on this playlist.

Handwashing breaks are likely to be a regular part of the new school day. You’ve already explained to your child that handwashing is key to controlling the spread of germs, so just give them a refresher on what proper handwashing looks like. Singing is a great way to engage kids and make things fun. It also measures time. Are there any other favorite songs they can think of that take the same amount of time to sing as singing Happy Birthday twice? Create a handwashing infographic of your child’s favorite song with this website. Can’t think of a song? Singing “If you’re happy and you know it” with the words “wash your hands” instead of “clap your hands” will get the job done. The chorus to “My Shot” from the musical Hamilton has become a favorite. If you want to go old school: “This Land is Your Land” chorus is also roughly 20 seconds long. And if your child needs reinforcement on handwashing techniques: this song will brush up your child’s technique.

Send your love from a distance

It’s hard for affectionate preschoolers and early elementary schoolers to curb their impulses to throw their arms around teachers and playmates. Explain to your child that their teachers and friends are happy to see them, too, and that during this pandemic time, we have to be creative about finding new ways to show our affection for each other. Talk about how they can show their love for their teachers and friends from a distance. For instance, they could say “I’m so happy to see you,” accompanied by a hop or a jump, or make a heart shape with their hands.

Playing together—from six feet apart

There’s a lower risk of transmission outdoors, but students may be asked to maintain a safe distance from one another or from kids in different cohorts at recess. Make a game out of learning to visualize what six feet looks like. Cut colorful ribbon or yarn in 6-foot lengths and place it on the floor or outside in different settings.

Looking for the silver linings

Children of all ages around the world are experiencing the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic. And we as their parents are feeling the pain of every virtual birthday party, missed playdate and lonely day of less to do. In the midst of this stress and sadness, it’s worth remembering that young humans are supremely adaptive: they are creatures of change and creativity and make-do-with-what-you-have.

In this moment many kids are discovering treasure that will last their whole lives. They’re learning that they have reservoirs of resilience, siblings they love, abilities to learn new things they never thought they could learn. One teen starts a journal. Another child creates a basket of goodies for the delivery people. A middle schooler gets to spend some quality time with his typically overworked father. Children are adapting to the world as it is, not as we have hoped it would be for them. And in this, they are better suited to the moment than we are. So as you move into this fall with all of its unknowns, notice the small wins your child is no doubt experiencing and celebrate them. Because those will be the learning moments that stick.

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Updated: August 17, 2020