Helping children who want to go back to school

Posted by Christine Sergiacomi on 4/27/2020

how lucky i am I think most of us saw this coming, but it’s still a little difficult to imagine that our kids won’t come back in the school building this school year.  I know from talking to other parents, and from breaking the news to my own child, that a lot of our kids are heartbroken over the way this year has turned out.  

In my opinion, the best way to describe what those kids are feeling is simply:  grief.  We most frequently associate grief with death, but it can really be used to describe any kind of significant loss.  Our kids are grieving lots right now.  They have lost daily contact with countless friends and grownups who love and care about them.  They’ve lost a routine that they’ve gotten incredibly used to, which brings a sense of calm and familiarity.  They’ve lost experiences, like field day, class picnics, yearbook signings, field trips, etc.  They’ve lost rites of passage, like graduation for our 5th graders.  They’ve lost closure on the year, and for our 5th graders they’ve lost closure on 6 years of their lives.  

So I was thinking about how I would try to counsel a grieving child, and through that lense, I have a few suggestions about how we may be able to help our children who are feeling grief now:  


  1.  Don’t tell kids to “look on the bright side”:  Telling kids to look at the bright side is absolutely well-intentioned, but it’s probably not extremely helpful in this moment.  For them, there really isn’t a bright side.  They need to be sad, and we need to let them be sad.  If they cry, it’s okay.  If they are angry, it’s okay.  Our job is to help them express those feelings in healthy ways; not to make the feelings go away altogether.
  2. Don’t compare losses.  In a pandemic where there’s so much loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of stability, it might seem logical to point out that what our kids have lost pales in comparison to people losing much more.  While this is true, it’s a good rule of thumb that you can’t compare losses.  If we make our kids feel like their loss is not important, then they may begin to feel guilty for being sad and they may stop sharing their feelings altogether. 
  3. Do help them move their focus to happier times.  So instead of telling them to look at the bright side or comparing their loss to someone else’s loss, help them focus energy on remembering happier times.  While we are stuck at home, this is a great time to help your child organize some of those memories.  Make a photo album or a scrapbook.  Go through old schoolwork and create a memory box of things they want to hold onto.  This helps acknowledge the loss while still redirecting energy towards something more positive.
  4. Do continue to offer them new experiences and expand their worldview (when we’re able)!  There’s a theory that when we experience a major loss, we can picture it like this:  Our lives are like a small cube.  The loss is like a large ball inside that cube.  At first, the loss consumes us.  It takes over our whole lives, fills almost all of the cube and touches the cube on all sides.  Over time, the ball never really gets smaller.  The loss is never lessened, but if we continue living, creating new experiences for ourselves, that expands our cube, so the ball becomes proportionately, a smaller piece of our overall experience.  If you think about grief like this, then we can help our children grieve by expanding their cubes.  That’s really hard to do right now when we are all so limited in where we can go and who we can interact with.  However, as restrictions begin to lift, it will become easier to help our children incorporate new experiences into their lives.
  5. Do create new traditions. One way to expand their metaphorical cube is to create new traditions when we lose the ability to participate in a ritual or rite of passage (like graduation, 5th grade dance, end of year picnics). I can’t begin to offer what that may look like, but I think it’s worthwhile to think about what traditions you can start within your family or (socially distanced) friends.  How will you celebrate the end of the year in your house this year?  Let your kids help you brainstorm some possible new traditions.
  6. Do find a way to say goodbye.  Especially for our students leaving Sherwood next year, it’s really important to be able to say goodbye.  Typically at the end of each school year, I see 5th graders running around school seeing each of their old teachers as a way to close out their time at Sherwood.  Think about how you can do that this year.  Could your child write letters to former teachers, send emails, make video messages?  And if you’ve ever moved to a new home, you know that sometimes saying goodbye to a building is important too!  Go take a picture of your child by the Sherwood Forest sign or the rock.  If they want to say goodbye, let them do it.  If they think you’re weird for suggesting it, then pretend I didn’t offer that idea!
  7.  Do remind them of the legacy they leave. For our 5th graders in particular, all of them should have a rock that they painted in the rock “stream” courtyard between the 1st/3rd hall and the new building.  Remind them that those rocks are a product of their imagination and personality, and that even after they leave Sherwood, their rocks are there to stay.  


One last thing to remember. . .you know that moment when you’re a new parent and your baby rolls off your bed and you immediately assume you’ve done irreparable harm?  They still turned out okay, right?  They did; because kids are incredibly resilient.  They are designed to be that way.  This group of kids is going to gain strength and wisdom from this situation.  They’ll be better citizens, parents, and leaders one day because of it.  And I pity their future children who will never be able to complain about anything because of “that time the world closed down and I had to do the last 4 months of school from home with my parents”.  

So let them grieve these losses that they’re feeling.  Better times are ahead.