Schools will soon be open after nearly a year of being closed due to COVID-19. This has huge implications for everyone concerned. IFR’s Early Intervention Program has numerous longstanding relationships with many of San Francisco’s elementary and middle schools, and what school reopenings may look like. Two of this program’s clinicians, Elia Dominguez and Jocelyn Panfilo, allowed us to pick their brains about this unique back-to-school experience holds.
Among other things, Elia and Jocelyn agree on two key facts: there’s no “one size fits all” for how children are impacted by going back to school; and everyone – not just kids – are impacted.
Elia, who has 25 years’ experience at IFR, broke it down this way: “Some are super excited to go back to school, while others seem scared and don’t even want to talk. Learning at home actually worked well for some kids. Plus, going back to school may work very differently. Kids are naturally sweet and tactile so it will be hard to remain socially distant. Seeing their friends will come with restrictions.”
They discussed the great focus placed on “learning loss” with little attention given to the important relationships that need to be nurtured. “Relationships foster learning. Smiles are lost with a mask, as is learning how to be a good friend, or how to share,” suggests Jocelyn. “Proximity can sometimes help kids, but we’ve just lived through a year of giving kids the message that it’s not safe to be around other people.”
One thing that’s clear is that there remains a lot of questions and uncertainty that may be difficult for kids. Elia and Jocelyn are wizards at explaining how children communicate. “It can be hard for kids to express what they’re feeling. Young ones feel everything, but don’t necessarily have the words and understanding to explain what these feelings. They tend to express it through their behaviors. But if their behaviors have to be controlled – just as they had to while “going to school” on Zoom, it can be frustrating for everyone involved.
So, if you’re a parent, caregiver or teacher, what can you do? Both Jocelyn and Elia have valuable tips to pass along.
Jocelyn’s tip: “Meet them where they’re at. Make them feel comfortable so they can share with you. Validate their feelings. Abide by the ‘name it to tame it’ rule.”
Elia’s tip: “Be patient and gentle with your kids. Transitions and separations may be more challenging than you’d expect. We use ‘for now’ often: we can’t hug for now, or we can’t share for now so they know it won’t be this way forever.”
In case you think this only refers to the kids and not their parents, you’d be mistaken. In fact, as Jocelyn and Elia pointed out more than once – COVID-19 and the school closings have had a collective impact.
Elia reminded us: “Some parents are having a harder time than their kids. They’re sad they can’t be with their kids anymore. They’re uncertain about school protocols and their children’s safety.”
Similarly, teachers have also been impacted. Some are very excited to get back to “normal.” Many teachers love interacting with kids. At the same time, while Zoom was an imperfect platform for reaching/teaching each individual child, Jocelyn found that several teachers were able to engage with families more via Zoom.
For children, parents, teachers – going back to school will be a mixture of happiness and sadness because they’re all impacted in individual ways. For all of us, Elia and Jocelyn remind us that things will get better. “We went through this together, and we will navigate out of it together.”
And speaking about collective impact, let’s not forget the various service providers that have remained engaged with kids, parents, and teachers over the past year. Early Intervention clinicians have been at the forefront of addressing the stressors impacting children, parents and teachers – not to mention their own.
Elia spoke about the rippling effect of the various impacts. “It’s impossible not to acknowledge the relational nature of our work. When parents and teachers face stress, it’s important to talk about it to understand the meaning behind it and be fully present. We support them to pause, find joy, be grateful, and remember why they chose to become a teacher. This helps them learn how to navigate their stress.”
Having worked at IFR for approximately a year, Jocelyn had a somewhat different perspective. “Most of my work has been remote since I’ve been at IFR. I found I had to meet with parents at pop-up meetings in the park or on the street, but that refueled me. It was healing to meet with parents and teachers face-to-face, and I could feel the difference it made for them. In turn, this sparked my joy.”
That seems to be the crux of it – finding that joy and gratitude – is critical. Elia’s personal reflection offers a guide for all who are experiencing back-to-school pains, or maybe just pain in general. Explaining her process, Elia shared, “I have and hold a reflective practice that allows me to reflect on the gifts, experiences and successes I’ve had in the past year. I ask: what did I learn, what was icky, what made me stretch and get out of auto-pilot mode, what made me creative and responsive, and what were the fails? Which of these things do I want to keep and bring with me into the next phase, and what do I want to leave behind? This allows me to avoid remaining stuck and lets me be hopeful.”
To all children, parents, teachers, school administrators and staff, and community service providers: have a hopeful and joyful back-to-school.