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Back to school: What parents can do to help emotionally prepare their children for change

By Aley Davis, KSL TV | Posted - Aug. 14, 2020 at 10:04 p.m.


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KAYSVILLE — In addition to adding masks and sanitizing products to your back-to-school shopping list, it's important parents make sure their children are emotionally prepared for some of the changes coming their way.

One Kaysville mom is taking proactive measures to help her kids have a successful year.

When it comes to the upcoming school year, 9-year-old Ben Blackhurst said it best: "It’s going to be weird and hard."

Ben’s mom, Summer Blackhurst, says despite her best efforts, online learning last spring didn’t go according to plan.

"I had the same pep talk every other mother had at that point. It was like, ‘We can do this!’" she recalled. "And at least two days in, I just turned into mush."

"It was a lot of fights, it was a lot of tears, it was a lot of accidents," she added. "What it looked like on paper was totally different than what it looked like in real life."

On top of home schooling, Blackhurst and her husband were also both working, making the transition more difficult.

The Blackhursts have enjoyed a very much needed break from school this summer. "We're best friends again, because I'm not the drill sergeant," she said laughing.

But now, Blackhurst is determined to set her kids up for success this school year. Her three children, Ben, James, and Maddy, will attend school in-person two days a week at Windridge Elementary School. She knows there will be plenty of change ahead of them when they enter the classroom.

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"I want to see you guys put these on," Blackhurst said to her kids as she handed them new masks.

Blackhurst says her kids do best when they know what to anticipate. That’s why she has them practice wearing masks and social distancing at places like the library.

"You walk in, you wash your hands, you have to have a mask, you have to be a little bit quieter, and you've got the dots on the ground," she said. "The more we're doing that before we get into the school day, I think that's going to be a little bit easier for them to understand."

Whenever the family goes out, Blackhurst has her kids put on masks even if it’s not required in certain stores so they get used to wearing them for longer periods of time.

Intermountain Healthcare's Carin Knight, a licensed clinical social worker at Primary Children’s Wasatch Canyons Behavioral Health Clinic, says children will be better equipped to emotionally handle change when their parents help them prepare.

"I think that's really important to do to talk about ‘the why’ and ‘the what’ that gives them some context," Knight explained.

Knight also encourages parents to set realistic expectations.

"Be flexible and willing to change and adapt as things go," she said. "When things aren't working, don't try to keep forcing it to look like something that it's not going to look like."

Knight says this is especially important for families who are doing online learning. Blackhurst is prepared to take breaks on the days her kids learn from home. From her experience last spring, she realized how important it is for both she and her kids to stay active.

"Filtering them into a place where their bodies can just get movement is critical," Blackhurst said, and helps them learn better.

Blackhurst set up a swing, balance beam, obstacle course, and even guides her kids through Cosmic Kids Yoga.

Knight says the key to success is learning how to problem solve and identify your own child’s needs. "You may have to do more breaks, you may have to work on changing the way you approach your kids," she said.

Blackhurst has also found creative things like fidget spinners and yoga balls to help her kids with sensory challenges focus on their school work. She says it helps her kids stay better engaged.

Knight encourages parents to create an open dialogue with their kids throughout the year. "We do need to help them share what they're thinking and feeling," Knight said.

She says it’s beneficial for parents to also share their emotions. "When you actually normalize that you have emotions and feelings too, that you struggle, that you don't always know what you're doing… it gives a lot of comfort and power to children to say, ‘Oh, OK. All right!"

But she also says it’s important for parents to take the lead in demonstrating healthy behavior. "They need to see us modeling good stress management techniques, they need to see us talking about the positives, looking for gratitude," she explained.

Knight reminds parents that children are able to adapt fairly quickly.

"Adults tend to be more of the overthinkers, the worries, (but) children and teens across the board are better at being resilient and we underestimate that," she said. "They will be able to figure this out and let's let them."

She wants her kids to feel safe and confident in their ability to succeed despite the unusual challenges they will face this year with the virus.

"We do our best to teach them, but I don't want them to live in fear. I don't want them to have anxiety," she explained.

No matter what happens this school year, Blackhurst takes comfort in knowing the support system she and her husband have built for their children isn’t going anywhere.

"When we finish our day, we're all together," she said.

"Church was taken away, school was taken away, they couldn't go to the store for a while," Blackhurst said. "So many things were taken away from them, (but) we were not taken away from each other, and that's the most powerful, powerful thing we have is our family."

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