Student View

BACK TO SCHOOL, BACK TOGETHER

Expert insights on how the pandemic impacted kids—and how you can be ready to support them.

Dr. Linda Mayes, the longtime director of the Yale Child Study Center, is a passionate advocate for children, families, and teachers. She shared some keen and often surprising insights into how the pandemic has impacted kids—and what this will mean for you and your classroom community. 

Dear teachers,

 

We at Scholastic have always celebrated back-to-school as a time of excitement and fresh starts. And this year feels especially momentous. Despite lingering uncertainty, we’re not only getting back to school but also seeing school communities coming together once again. 

We know you may be feeling a mix of emotions this year, and likely some worries too as Covid-19 persists. So many of you have shared questions with us about the pandemic's impact on your students’ well-being and their ability to learn, to forge friendships, and to connect with you. How can you best prepare to make this back-to-school welcoming, safe, and supportive? 

These are such big and important questions. And luckily, we can turn to Dr. Linda Mayes for some answers. The director of the Yale Child Study Center, Dr. Mayes is a passionate advocate for children, families, and teachers. She's shared with us some keen insights into how the pandemic has impacted kids—and what this will mean for you and your classroom community. 

“Teachers aren’t therapists or social workers and needn’t feel that they should play those roles,” Dr. Mayes says. “But having some awareness of what to expect from the children in your class and from yourself will help you feel more prepared and at ease as you and your students come back together.”

We at Scholastic feel so grateful to be partnering with Dr. Mayes and her colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center, and to be able to bring you their expert and compassionate perspective. Below are highlights from a series of conversations we had with Dr. Mayes. We hope her insights and practical advice will help you feel more confident and inspired as you begin this momentous year. 


—Lauren Tarshis
Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazines+
Author of the I Survived book series

The pandemic has been a shared experience, but also different for everyone

“Your students are living through a historic event, one that people will be talking about for generations,” says Dr. Mayes. “Everyone in the world has experienced a disruption. But not everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic equally. In a single classroom, there will be a wide range of student experiences.” 

In other words, we’re all navigating the same stormy waters but in different boats. Some children could be grieving the deaths of family members or coping with severe financial strains in their families. At the same time, there are many children who have been largely shielded from the pandemic’s worst impacts but who nonetheless were affected in different ways.

“Being aware of the range of experiences in your class will help you set the right tone for discussions about the pandemic. You’ll also be better able to identify students who might need extra support.”

What you can do:

Consider sending out a family letter before school starts, inviting families to share any special concerns or insights into their children’s experiences and emotional needs. Here’s a template of a letter you can adapt (en Español).

Consider sending out a family letter before school starts, inviting families to share any special concerns or insights into their children’s experiences and emotional needs. Here’s a template of a letter you can adapt (en Español).

Consider sending out a family letter before school starts, inviting families to share any special concerns or insights into their children’s experiences and emotional needs. Here’s a template of a letter you can adapt (en Español).

Try to avoid making  assumptions about how an individual student might be feeling, even if you’re aware of what they faced during the pandemic. Just as each child’s experience is unique, so is each child’s way of processing and expressing emotions.

Try to avoid making  assumptions about how an individual student might be feeling, even if you’re aware of what they faced during the pandemic. Just as each child’s experience is unique, so is each child’s way of processing and expressing emotions.

Try to avoid making  assumptions about how an individual student might be feeling, even if you’re aware of what they faced during the pandemic. Just as each child’s experience is unique, so is each child’s way of processing and expressing emotions.

Let your students set the stage for how much they want to share with you about their individual experiences. Provide opportunities to write and talk about the pandemic, but offer options that don’t require students to write directly about their personal experiences. Open-ended prompts and creative writing activities can help children process their experiences in empowering and healing ways. The Scholastic Magazines My History project includes a range of age-appropriate ideas. 

Let your students set the stage for how much they want to share with you about their individual experiences. Provide opportunities to write and talk about the pandemic, but offer options that don’t require students to write directly about their personal experiences. Open-ended prompts and creative writing activities can help children process their experiences in empowering and healing ways. The Scholastic Magazines My History project includes a range of age-appropriate ideas. 

Let your students set the stage for how much they want to share with you about their individual experiences. Provide opportunities to write and talk about the pandemic, but offer options that don’t require students to write directly about their personal experiences. Open-ended prompts and creative writing activities can help children process their experiences in empowering and healing ways. The Scholastic Magazines My History project includes a range of age-appropriate ideas. 

Be prepared with external resources for families who have been hit hard in one way or another. Your administration should be able to direct families to resources to help with economic, health, and mental health challenges.

Be prepared with external resources for families who have been hit hard in one way or another. Your administration should be able to direct families to resources to help with economic, health, and mental health challenges.

Be prepared with external resources for families who have been hit hard in one way or another. Your administration should be able to direct families to resources to help with economic, health, and mental health challenges.

Emotional needs must come first

Back-to-school can be an anxious time for some students, and this year, those feelings  are likely to be heightened. For example, younger students may be feeling more separation anxiety. Older students may struggle more with organization and focus, and with getting used to being with their peers again. Students of all ages may return to school feeling that they are somehow behind academically and will need to be reassured.

“In my mind, the first six months of this school year are going to be about healing,” Dr. Mayes says. “Children need to feel safe again, to build confidence, to learn how to be together again in person. Their emotional health is a precursor to their being able to learn.”

What you can do:

Make it clear to students from the start  that their well-being is a priority—reinforce that focus regularly. Your message can be simple: “I’m always here for you, and we’re all going to work together to make our classroom a happy and safe place.” 

Make it clear to students from the start  that their well-being is a priority—reinforce that focus regularly. Your message can be simple: “I’m always here for you, and we’re all going to work together to make our classroom a happy and safe place.” 

Make it clear to students from the start  that their well-being is a priority—reinforce that focus regularly. Your message can be simple: “I’m always here for you, and we’re all going to work together to make our classroom a happy and safe place.” 

Come together to talk about how you are all going to take care of each other, and recognize your students’ acts of kindness whenever you can. Asking for help, receiving help, and giving help are all resilience-building. By creating a caring culture, you will be building the resilience skills of the entire classroom. 

Come together to talk about how you are all going to take care of each other, and recognize your students’ acts of kindness whenever you can. Asking for help, receiving help, and giving help are all resilience-building. By creating a caring culture, you will be building the resilience skills of the entire classroom. 

Come together to talk about how you are all going to take care of each other, and recognize your students’ acts of kindness whenever you can. Asking for help, receiving help, and giving help are all resilience-building. By creating a caring culture, you will be building the resilience skills of the entire classroom. 

Expressing gratitude is another valuable and resilience-building skill. Encourage students to reflect on people whose help they have appreciated over the course of the pandemic. Cultivate a class culture where students thank you and each other for even small acts of kindness. 

Expressing gratitude is another valuable and resilience-building skill. Encourage students to reflect on people whose help they have appreciated over the course of the pandemic. Cultivate a class culture where students thank you and each other for even small acts of kindness. 

Expressing gratitude is another valuable and resilience-building skill. Encourage students to reflect on people whose help they have appreciated over the course of the pandemic. Cultivate a class culture where students thank you and each other for even small acts of kindness. 

Articles and stories with social-emotional themes are wonderful tools for enabling students to comfortably reflect on and process intense emotions. Here are free Scholastic Magazine articles, videos, and other resources for different age levels that will be especially helpful and inspiring to your students. Use them for instruction and independent reading, and share them with families.

For younger students in grades K-2, this SEL workbook on coping with Covid-19, First Aid for Feelings, is downloadable for free in multiple languages. 

Articles and stories with social-emotional themes are wonderful tools for enabling students to comfortably reflect on and process intense emotions. Here are free Scholastic Magazine articles, videos, and other resources for different age levels that will be especially helpful and inspiring to your students. Use them for instruction and independent reading, and share them with families.

For younger students in grades K-2, this SEL workbook on coping with Covid-19, First Aid for Feelings, is downloadable for free in multiple languages. 

Articles and stories with social-emotional themes are wonderful tools for enabling students to comfortably reflect on and process intense emotions. Here are free Scholastic Magazine articles, videos, and other resources for different age levels that will be especially helpful and inspiring to your students. Use them for instruction and independent reading, and share them with families.

For younger students in grades K-2, this SEL workbook on coping with Covid-19, First Aid for Feelings, is downloadable for free in multiple languages. 

Keep your eyes open for children who need extra support or show signs that they might require professional help. Watch for a student who seems especially quiet and withdrawn from the rest of the class, for instance, or a child who is overly active and disruptive. Students who seem especially irritable or aggressive may be acting out strong feelings that they cannot put into words.

Keep your eyes open for children who need extra support or show signs that they might require professional help. Watch for a student who seems especially quiet and withdrawn from the rest of the class, for instance, or a child who is overly active and disruptive. Students who seem especially irritable or aggressive may be acting out strong feelings that they cannot put into words.

Keep your eyes open for children who need extra support or show signs that they might require professional help. Watch for a student who seems especially quiet and withdrawn from the rest of the class, for instance, or a child who is overly active and disruptive. Students who seem especially irritable or aggressive may be acting out strong feelings that they cannot put into words.

Academic anxiety is running high—for everyone

Kids are wondering, “Am I way behind?” Parents and students alike might feel worried that they didn’t manage remote learning as well as they were supposed to. Meanwhile, districts are assessing learning gaps and amping up assessments. But, as Dr. Mayes points out, “academic anxiety can actually impede learning. Mental well-being lays the foundation for academic growth.”

What you can do:

Assure kids that everyone is feeling a little behind—that this is normal. You might share that you are feeling a little rusty yourself. Showing your own vulnerabilities can model a healthy mindset and signal that your classroom is a safe place to talk about emotions. Make it clear that you are there to help everyone learn at their own pace. 

Assure kids that everyone is feeling a little behind—that this is normal. You might share that you are feeling a little rusty yourself. Showing your own vulnerabilities can model a healthy mindset and signal that your classroom is a safe place to talk about emotions. Make it clear that you are there to help everyone learn at their own pace. 

Assure kids that everyone is feeling a little behind—that this is normal. You might share that you are feeling a little rusty yourself. Showing your own vulnerabilities can model a healthy mindset and signal that your classroom is a safe place to talk about emotions. Make it clear that you are there to help everyone learn at their own pace. 

Remember that kids (and teachers!) need to rebuild their stamina. Start slow, and gradually adjust the pace and volume of work. Communicate regularly with families, and encourage them to share any concerns.

Remember that kids (and teachers!) need to rebuild their stamina. Start slow, and gradually adjust the pace and volume of work. Communicate regularly with families, and encourage them to share any concerns.

Remember that kids (and teachers!) need to rebuild their stamina. Start slow, and gradually adjust the pace and volume of work. Communicate regularly with families, and encourage them to share any concerns.

Make clear that growth and learning aren’t all about academics. Encourage students to share new skills, hobbies, habits, and experiences they gained during the pandemic. 

Make clear that growth and learning aren’t all about academics. Encourage students to share new skills, hobbies, habits, and experiences they gained during the pandemic. 

Make clear that growth and learning aren’t all about academics. Encourage students to share new skills, hobbies, habits, and experiences they gained during the pandemic. 

When it comes to assessments, make sure children know that the purpose isn’t to see who is behind, but to make sure kids get the help they need. You might share that what excites you most about teaching is seeing improvement throughout the year.

When it comes to assessments, make sure children know that the purpose isn’t to see who is behind, but to make sure kids get the help they need. You might share that what excites you most about teaching is seeing improvement throughout the year.

When it comes to assessments, make sure children know that the purpose isn’t to see who is behind, but to make sure kids get the help they need. You might share that what excites you most about teaching is seeing improvement throughout the year.

Kids need routines—but also extra independence

Throughout the pandemic, old routines were replaced by new ones, which could be upended at any time. For many kids, the normal structures of their lives fell away—going to school, participating in after-school activities, playing in sports leagues, hanging out with friends.

“Children lost a sense of certainty and predictability,” Dr. Mayes says. “Without that, it was hard to plan or look forward to anything. So much has been uncertain.”

Reestablishing class routines and procedures will be more critical than ever and will help kids regain a sense of security and predictability in their lives. 

At the same time, Dr. Mayes strongly recommends giving students more flexibility and choice in their routines—and a voice in creating them. “During the pandemic, kids lost so much control over their lives, their ability to choose what they wanted to do. As important as routines are, so is the need to provide children with agency, even in the youngest grades.”

What you can do:

During your first week, have students work together to lay out classroom routines and rules. Make sure to build in extra opportunities for independent learning and choice, and for activities the class can choose together. For example, create a Fun Friday time and a menu of options for celebrating birthdays. Create choice boards for assignments.

During your first week, have students work together to lay out classroom routines and rules. Make sure to build in extra opportunities for independent learning and choice, and for activities the class can choose together. For example, create a Fun Friday time and a menu of options for celebrating birthdays. Create choice boards for assignments.

During your first week, have students work together to lay out classroom routines and rules. Make sure to build in extra opportunities for independent learning and choice, and for activities the class can choose together. For example, create a Fun Friday time and a menu of options for celebrating birthdays. Create choice boards for assignments.

Provide as much choice as possible in the books and articles kids read in school and at home. Giving students choices in what they read—the ability to select books that are right for them—is important in building literacy as well as an opportunity for agency.

Provide as much choice as possible in the books and articles kids read in school and at home. Giving students choices in what they read—the ability to select books that are right for them—is important in building literacy as well as an opportunity for agency.

Provide as much choice as possible in the books and articles kids read in school and at home. Giving students choices in what they read—the ability to select books that are right for them—is important in building literacy as well as an opportunity for agency.

Schedules may be packed with structured learning, and school days may be extended. Be flexible and ready to pivot, to build in breaks and additional choices. If a new routine isn’t working well or feeling right, change it. Keep lines of communication open, and let students know you value their input. 

Schedules may be packed with structured learning, and school days may be extended. Be flexible and ready to pivot, to build in breaks and additional choices. If a new routine isn’t working well or feeling right, change it. Keep lines of communication open, and let students know you value their input. 

Schedules may be packed with structured learning, and school days may be extended. Be flexible and ready to pivot, to build in breaks and additional choices. If a new routine isn’t working well or feeling right, change it. Keep lines of communication open, and let students know you value their input. 

The social order has been upended—in surprising ways

Whether you teach kindergarten or high school, your classroom has a complex social structure—the established friend groups, the joined-at-the-hip pairs, the alpha kids, and those left out.

 The disruption of the pandemic likely shook up many of these established dynamics. Millions of families moved during the pandemic. The children entering your classroom may be new to your community, may have shifted housing within your district, or may have had friends move away. “Be aware that these social transitions are always stressful for children,” says Dr. Mayes, “but will have been particularly so during the traumas associated with Covid.” 

Similarly, connections with classmates will have frayed during the months of remote learning, lost sports seasons, and two summers apart. Friend groups may have dissolved, and children may also have been socially isolated.

At the same time, remote learning offered some children a welcome break from the insecurity that can arise at school and the chance to forge new kinds of relationships. No matter what, this year provides a chance for fresh starts and establishing healthy social dynamics within your classroom community. 

What you can do:

Once again, family engagement will be key. Are students missing close friends? Are there fraught dynamics you should know about? Are there budding friendships that you can help nurture? Gaining insights before school begins will help you plan. 

Once again, family engagement will be key. Are students missing close friends? Are there fraught dynamics you should know about? Are there budding friendships that you can help nurture? Gaining insights before school begins will help you plan. 

Once again, family engagement will be key. Are students missing close friends? Are there fraught dynamics you should know about? Are there budding friendships that you can help nurture? Gaining insights before school begins will help you plan. 

For younger children, create a buddy program with older students, pairing children to support each other through the transition back to school. Have buddies write each other a “welcome back” letter sharing something about who they are and how they feel about returning to school. 

For younger children, create a buddy program with older students, pairing children to support each other through the transition back to school. Have buddies write each other a “welcome back” letter sharing something about who they are and how they feel about returning to school. 

For younger children, create a buddy program with older students, pairing children to support each other through the transition back to school. Have buddies write each other a “welcome back” letter sharing something about who they are and how they feel about returning to school. 

Be aware that bullying usually happens outside of earshot of adults, and children often hesitate to report it. For some children, that dynamic was likely heightened over the course of the pandemic. Look for a student who may be sitting alone at lunchtime, reluctant to go outside at recess, or having unexpected absences. 

Be aware that bullying usually happens outside of earshot of adults, and children often hesitate to report it. For some children, that dynamic was likely heightened over the course of the pandemic. Look for a student who may be sitting alone at lunchtime, reluctant to go outside at recess, or having unexpected absences. 

Be aware that bullying usually happens outside of earshot of adults, and children often hesitate to report it. For some children, that dynamic was likely heightened over the course of the pandemic. Look for a student who may be sitting alone at lunchtime, reluctant to go outside at recess, or having unexpected absences. 

Share books and stories that feature children who’ve faced social difficulties and emerged with strength and close friendships. Check the Scholastic Magazines hub for some excellent choices. 

Share books and stories that feature children who’ve faced social difficulties and emerged with strength and close friendships. Check the Scholastic Magazines hub for some excellent choices. 

Share books and stories that feature children who’ve faced social difficulties and emerged with strength and close friendships. Check the Scholastic Magazines hub for some excellent choices. 

Positive growth can come from challenging experiences

One big lesson from the pandemic? We have a remarkable ability to adapt, to grow, and to connect in new ways. 

“We’ve learned so much about the toxic impact of stress on children,” Dr. Mayes says. “But we’ve also learned that there are unique opportunities for growth that can emerge from stressful experiences.” 

How can you leverage these positive experiences in ways that promote further growth? How can you help students frame their pandemic challenges in ways that are empowering?

“We should foster in children the sense that they were part of a shared, historic event, one that will be felt for generations,” Dr. Mayes says. “Your students will grow up to share stories about their experiences. They will have powerful memories and wisdom to share with their own children and grandchildren.”

"This context will help children understand that they have been part of an experience that is much larger than any of us and that has given them strength and resilience that will serve them for years to come.”

What you can do:

Encourage children to consider positive habits and lessons they gained from the pandemic. Maybe remote learning made them more comfortable with technology. Perhaps they’re now using Zoom or FaceTime to keep in closer touch with grandparents or friends who moved away. Have students share these experiences if they are comfortable doing so. 

Encourage children to consider positive habits and lessons they gained from the pandemic. Maybe remote learning made them more comfortable with technology. Perhaps they’re now using Zoom or FaceTime to keep in closer touch with grandparents or friends who moved away. Have students share these experiences if they are comfortable doing so. 

Encourage children to consider positive habits and lessons they gained from the pandemic. Maybe remote learning made them more comfortable with technology. Perhaps they’re now using Zoom or FaceTime to keep in closer touch with grandparents or friends who moved away. Have students share these experiences if they are comfortable doing so. 

Discuss which pandemic routines students will be happy to leave behind, and what they are most looking forward to. For students who would like to record or perhaps share their pandemic experiences, the Scholastic Magazine team has created the My History project, which offers a range of age-appropriate projects.

Discuss which pandemic routines students will be happy to leave behind, and what they are most looking forward to. For students who would like to record or perhaps share their pandemic experiences, the Scholastic Magazine team has created the My History project, which offers a range of age-appropriate projects.

Discuss which pandemic routines students will be happy to leave behind, and what they are most looking forward to. For students who would like to record or perhaps share their pandemic experiences, the Scholastic Magazine team has created the My History project, which offers a range of age-appropriate projects.

In summing up her insights, optimism shines through as Dr. Mayes underscores the lessons and strengths we can gain from facing challenges.

“One big lesson from the pandemic was our ability to adapt and change,” she says. “We grew, learned new skills, helped each other in unexpected ways. There are many challenges and hardships. But there were also unexpected joys and opportunities for growth. Helping your students recognize these is a powerful lesson that will help them throughout their lives, whatever challenges they might face.”