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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Golub

5 Tips to Transition Back To In-Person Learning This Fall

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Hello, and welcome to my blog! My name is Melissa Golub and I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who specializes in working with adolescents and young adults struggling with depression and anxiety. Many students, including several of my clients, are going back to school in a few weeks and are feeling a whole cocktail of emotions- anxiety, fear, excitement and uncertainty, to name a few. After speaking with them at length about their concerns, I've consolidated the common themes to share with you.

Here are 5 tips to help you, and your families, manage this challenging and momentous time:

1. Find a trusted peer and lean on them

Many of us (kids and adults) felt isolated, alone and depressed during lockdown. Our socialization shifted from visiting with friends, neighbors and relatives in-person to seeing our loved ones through a screen. As a result, many, many relationships changed over the course of 2020. Now that kids are getting ready to see their peers again in person, one concern I hear is, "Who will I sit with at lunch?" Kids will have to re-learn how to socialize safely in-person. They will also need to re-establish their social circles.

Students have a prime opportunity to make a new friend- someone who can relate to their unique experience- so why not take advantage of the situation?

No one can truly understand what students are experiencing, except other students. Whether a student is able to re-connect with a friend pre-COVID or is ready to make a new friend, reach out to a classmate and ask to sit with them at lunch.

So, my response to the question, "Who will I sit with at lunch" is this- "Who do YOU want to sit with?"

If your previous best friend is no longer someone you associate with, then find someone else in your class to connect with. Most students are feeling similarly to you, so take this opportunity to demonstrate courage and vulnerability. You, and your new friend, will be able to support each other through this transition.

2. Ask for help

As I previously mentioned, there are very few people who can truly understand what students are going through aside from other students. That doesn't mean, though, that they have to go through this transition alone. Counselors, teachers and other supportive figures are here to help.

- The school counselor can create a social and emotional group to support students who are really struggling with this transition

- Teachers can foster relationships by encouraging group learning and by assigning "get to know you" activities

- Parents and caregivers can listen to students' concerns and validate their feelings. Since each person's experience is unique, find out what the student is thinking and feeling by asking engaging questions, using active listening, and offering support when appropriate.

3. Safety is a priority and should NEVER be compromised... even if the party sounds fun

Understandably, many students are anxious about COVID and how that will impact their social life. Some colleges are requiring vaccinations while others are unable to do so. Whatever your beliefs are regarding the COVID vaccine, I encourage all of my clients to consider what makes them feel safe and keep those boundaries firm.

Anxiety can make us feel that we are unsafe; that we might curl up into a ball and die unless we avoid the thing that is making us feel anxious. Sometimes that's true and sometimes that's our brain tricking us. For example, it may feel completely intolerable when a cicada lands on our foot. But in reality, those big, loud bugs are harmless and are just looking to mate every 17 years. On the other hand, socializing at a college party with people who "aren't in your bubble" may feel like a safety concern because that could increase your exposure to COVID. Yes, the anxiety you feel getting ready to go to that party is real and is a rational concern. Listen to your gut and if it says "no, this doesn't feel right", then change your plans. Ignore the peer pressure you may feel and endless calls/ texts/ FaceTime/ etc. messages asking where you are.... if you feel that you are jeopardizing your safety, I don't think it's worth it. Chances are, you'll be glad you put your safety first too.

4. Make as many choices as you can

Another difficult reality that we have all had to face during the last year and a half is the lack of choice in our life. As adults, we could not choose which restaurant to eat in or our next travel destination. Many adults took for granted the "pleasures" of going in to work and hitting the gym. Or even being able to kiss someone at the end of a date without worrying about contracting a deadly virus.

Kids could not choose to go to school or choose which friends to invite for a playdate/ sleepover. Kids couldn't choose which dance class they wanted to participate in or which library book to take home. Kids, in particular, also didn't (and some still don't) have the opportunity to get a COVID vaccine.

One way to ease the back-to-school learning this fall is for everyone- adults and kids- to identify the choices they CAN make. Kids can choose which clothes to wear each morning, for example. They can choose which protein, carb, and fat they want to have for lunch. They can choose which song to listen to in the morning or which ball to throw outside. Parents/ caregivers can choose which family members and friends they want to interact with and which gatherings feel unsafe at this time. Focus on the choices you CAN make so you don't dwell on what could be.

5. Your attitude makes all the difference!

Last, but certainly not least, try to find gratitude each day and practice kindness wherever you can. It is SO easy to get caught up in all the killings, natural disasters, the devastating losses that resulted from this pandemic (personal, professional, academic, social, financial, etc.) and the overall chaos that we hear about on the news every day.

Choose to turn off the TV after 15-20 minutes to give your mind and heart a break. Pick up the phone and talk with a loved one instead. Rather than drowning in anxiety and isolation, find support through your community or pick up a new hobby. No, you don't need to learn to play the guitar while in lockdown to feel like you can live a meaningful, rich life. You do, however, need to find useful coping skills and select a variety to choose from. It's normal to wake up on the wrong side of the bed every once in a while. Reach into your tool kit and try doing something you know will lift your spirits, even if it's by a small amount. It's all about progress, not perfection.

The transition back to school this fall will not be easy for a lot of people, and that's OK. Do what you can to befriend a peer, ask for help, keep yourself safe, focus on what you CAN control and choose to make each day the best it can be.

If after following these tips and you still find yourself struggling, reach out to a mental health professional. We are here and ready to help you through this difficult time. Check out my website for more information on the services I offer and resources for your consideration.

For more information on safely transitioning back to in-person learning this fall, check out the US Department of Education's website.

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