Grace Episcopal School may officially be on summer break, but this summer is unlike all of the others. Our administrators and teachers will busy themselves, preparing for a lengthy list of possible eventualities that we may face this fall or even throughout the school year. While our families will continue to power through these unusual times with dreams of normalcy, the group we are all thinking most about are our students and children around the world.
This spring led to uncharted territory for us all. Our students' well-being, both socially and emotionally, has been tested, leaving many families wondering how to best support their children through these summer months. The most obvious change for children is a sudden socialization void in their lives. School offered an almost infinite number of interactions for students each day between time with teachers and classmates, and suddenly they are limited to socializing with their siblings, parents, and potentially a select number of neighbors, family members, or friends. If that weren't enough, their interaction opportunities become limited even more with the adults of the house busy taking calls, attending teleconferences, and completing necessary household tasks during the day.
Our Early Childhood Director, Mary Kate Holland suggests that families create opportunities to interact by playing games: card, board, outside, or sport games act as a simple and fun way to encourage social-emotional development at home. She shares that, "Games offer an excellent opportunity for our students to practice taking turns, sharing, rule following, and problem solving; all skills they would practice throughout the day in the classroom."
Assigned chores or household responsibilities also allow children to feel like they are participating members of the team, and benefit from the sense of accomplishment in completing a task. Still children crave interactions with others of their own age, so we encourage families to think creatively in order to offer these interactions. Some of our families have continued to hold class lunch Zoom gatherings and Zoom playdates are now the cool thing to do. Creating art and cards for loved ones, neighbors, or special friends is another way to offer interactions with others in a socially distant way. With many camps closed this summer, there are an array of opportunities for children to participate in virtual synchronous activities like an art class or a book club with peers.
The fear of getting COVID-19 seems to be the biggest fear we have encountered. Our Early Childhood Director suggests that families talk about COVID-19 in an age appropriate way and give children ways they can feel more in control. Children can practice washing hands, remaining at a safe distance, and wearing masks so as we slowly move back into a more typical world these safe practices are already a part of their routine. Mary Kate Holland advises that, "Empowering children to take control of these safe practices allows them to feel good about helping others. It also helps to reinforce that they are strong and healthy and will remain strong and healthy by taking part in these routines."
In addition to missing classmates, teachers and friends, several families have shared that children are also struggling with a less obvious byproduct of COVID-19, anxiety, which presents itself in so many different ways. We encourage our families to practice communicating feelings with their children, not just when the feelings are fresh, but also when natural in conversation. During these discussions, parents might be able to help their children identify what prompts the feelings of anxiety, as well as identify what tools they have for working through these emotions. These can include anything safe and respectful that allows the child to find a place of calm.
Our students have practiced different mindfulness strategies at school, like "taking 5" where they trace their fingers, using one hand to slowly outline the fingers on the other hand, breathing in when they go up the finger and out when they go down the finger. They are also encouraged to identify activities that help them feel calm like creating art, climbing a tree, or simply having down time free of adult interaction or stimulation.
Some of our families have also identified that their children are experiencing emotional unrest and confusion surrounding the tension of the Black Lives Matter movement, as they become exposed to some of the anger and deep divisions of social injustice that have come to light in recent weeks. We encourage families to have developmentally appropriate conversations about the importance of social justice, empathy and inclusion. Listening carefully to their questions will allow parents to gain insight into children's perceptions of current events, helping to guide further conversation. We suggest parents find ways to empower their children to treat others fairly and spread love, through the use of children's books, videos and various online resources.
Unfortunately, the challenges we’re currently facing aren’t likely to disappear soon, and it will take time for our nation to heal. School in the fall is going to look very different, even when in-person, and social distancing will be a familiar practice for some time to come. It is essential that we focus on supporting our children, giving them time and space to acclimate to the changes they will find in any school’s “new normal.” We are incredibly proud of the way our community has handled the challenges of distance learning and beyond with grace, and remain committed to helping our students continue to learn and grow into exceptional girls and boys.