As school districts throughout the U.S. struggle with how to return to school, should we be worried about our kids’ social development over the last year? How will they pick up social skills after not being around their peers for months? How will they go back like nothing has happened?
Before COVID, many kids already struggled socially. Take a year off from any peer interaction and the day-to-day social practice they would typically get during a school day, and now they are scared to return altogether. The past year taught these kids that it’s easier to avoid and not have to feel those uncomfortable moments again. It is much easier to sit in the comfort of their homes and get lost behind computers, phones, and other devices.
We Must Address Social and Emotional Needs
Let’s step back a minute. When COVID first hit, many experts were focused on academics. What will these kids miss in math and English? How will they learn critical academic development skills from home? How far will they be behind when this is all over? These are all still valid concerns, but there is also the social and emotional side to consider.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that kids need to return to in-person school this fall. They recognize the seriousness of COVID, but they also recognize the need for kids to be physically present with other kids and adults. This is especially true for preschool-age children who are learning how to share and play with other kids. There is a lot of value in personal interactions with other kids. It’s an important element of growing up at every age level.
Rusty Social Skills
If you don’t use it, you lose it. Many children and teens are trying to re-enter being social, and having been in their cocoon for a year, they feel their skills are rusty. Often it’s the parents that notice the drop in their ability to engage with friends. When thinking about social and emotional learning, make sure your child feels comfortable with the following:
- Making conversation
- Bridging from chit chat to a real conversation
- Joining a group
- Reaching out to peers
- Self-regulating and adapting to form cooperative interactions
- Coping with anxiety
- Tolerating schedule and environment changes
- Sharing and meeting people halfway
- Adapting to the needs and desires of the group
- Cultivating new friends
In normal circumstances, kids get a lot of practice, so socializing becomes a bit easier. But like anything that needs practice, when you have fewer opportunities, you get off your game.
So how do kids go back? What will that look like? How can we help them successfully transition to a more social environment? There are so many questions, and both parents and kids alike are anxious about the move back to in-person school.
Play is how children learn to have positive reciprocal relationships with other children, and hanging out with friends is how teenagers play and learn. Being with peers, trying things out, practicing, adapting, and trying again is a key aspect of social learning.
Increase Social Touchpoints
Help your child increase their social touchpoints and increase their shared experiences with their peers. What can they join? What can they do to have shared experiences, something to discuss, and something to do with other kids their age. Having a role or a job helps children who struggle socially have a reason to talk to other kids, for instance, I have to interview you for the yearbook, I am working on this newspaper story with you, or, we have to set up chairs for this event.
Smooth out the nerves:
- Play games this summer. Games can teach academic skills as well as provide opportunities to allow for social development. For younger children, model taking turns and how to handle losing. For older children, help them consider the feelings of others and talk about how to pick out a game someone else might like to play.
- Explore your surroundings by going on a hike. Help children learn to listen to the sounds around them. Ask them what they hear? This may sound silly, but taking the time to listen will help them improve their ability to pause and hear what someone might have to say.
- Find ways to reconnect with friends from school before you go back. Dust off those social skills before school returns in the fall and set up a few socially distanced play dates with friends your child knows. Maybe meet at a park or schedule a bike ride. Having that feeling of knowing someone who will be in your child’s class will make the transition a little easier.
- Read a book together. Find a book about a social dilemma and discuss the story together. Why was the main character angry or sad? What happened that made that character react in a bad way?
- Create a roadmap for returning to school. Depending on the age of your child, a big change can cause some anxiety that they may not know how to manage. Discuss their concerns. Ask what they are most looking forward to when the new school year begins.
- Discuss ways to play and engage with friends again. Take some time together and talk about different ways that kids can engage and play again. Maybe go to a local playground and observe how kids are interacting. Ask your child what she sees and how she might join in on the fun.
- Create a memory calendar. A calendar with photos from last year highlighting the fun he had with teachers and classmates. Throw in pictures of a field trip or class party to show how much fun was had at school.
- Listen and validate feelings. Our children need to be heard. The pressure to keep up with academics, fit in socially, and even deal with the fear of losing a family member to COVID is a lot. Your child may not know how to express their worries. Always acknowledge and empathize any feelings before jumping in to reassure him that everything will be fine.
If you notice your child struggling, you are not alone. You have to use social and emotional skills every day. There are many ways to help your child gain confidence and return to pre-pandemic social skills. These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Think of how you might apply some of these ideas to your day-to-day activities. Soon your child will be feeling more comfortable and socially ready to join the classroom in–person this fall.