With no last day of school, kids will need help with closure — here’s what experts say parents should do

Helping children and students gain some type of closure is paramount no matter what age or grade, say experts. Littlekidmoment/Shutterstock.com
  • Erinne Magee is a writer and mother of two based in Maine who has been worried about how to help her kids handle the school year getting cut short.
  • Completion of a school year signifies accomplishment – and many of this year’s students will miss out on that experience.
  • To help, talk with your kids about what they’re experiencing, validate their disappointment, and make them feel safe and understood.
  • Even if you have to change an end-of-year ritual, keep some sort of celebration to help teach your children how to accept what cannot be controlled.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When I first met my daughter’s three fifth-grade teachers at open house last fall, I was impressed by how passionate they were individually, yet genuinely connected as a team. I didn’t want to rave too much to Lexi because tweens sometimes don’t want to like what their parents like. So, I kept it cool. Soon, though, I heard all about the terrific trio of teachers.

And now, the year has been cut short.

Erinne magee headshot
Erinne Magee. Courtesy of Erinne Magee

In Maine, like most of the country, the rest of the school year will be conducted remotely. I felt an immense sadness with this news, wondering how Lexi and her friends can just start middle school without a transition.

I know this sentiment is echoed among parents, regardless of grade.

So I asked for help navigating this next phase of uncharted territory.

“Helping children and students gain some type of closure is paramount no matter what age or grade,” said Melanie Ross Mills, PhD, a relationship counselor in Dallas. “Completion of a school year signifies accomplishment, maturing and a personal sense of pride as each child has earned the ability to progress to the next grade.”

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, a senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York recommended approaching the topic in phases by taking cues from your child, noting they may feel fine now, but struggle with coping when June comes around.

Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York, reminded parents not to minimise whatever feelings your child may have by trying to cheer them up. “In an effort to offset the negative feelings, adults may be tempted to highlight the upsides of the pandemic fallout and deny the inherent sense of loss associated with it.” Saying something like, “You were getting tired of school anyway – now you don’t have to go there everyday” may seem helpful, Dr. Dorfman continued, but avoiding and denying the disappointment makes those feelings more intractable and harder to resolve. Validation of feelings is a fundamental strategy in helping with emotional regulation and several studies in the past decade have proven its efficacy.

Now is a good time to rethink your family’s daily schedule – and a big part of this restructure should come from your child.

Ask her what she misses the most about being in school or a spring sport that was cancelled. Find a way to incorporate what’s missing into your routine. For example, for kids involved in a play who are forgoing an end-of-year production, find a way to work theatre into their day-to-day schedule.

While nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, staying virtually connected has never been easier. Typically, our family had strict rules about screen time, but since stay-at-home orders have been in place, we encourage Zoom and FaceTime as much as possible. In a study that looks at the psychological impact of quarantine, increasing social interaction, even if behind a screen, helps in easing long term anxiety and distress. If your child’s class is having an end-of-year virtual celebration, for instance, a pair of friends could help each other pick out their outfits via video calling.

We chose reflection as a means to guide my daughter toward closure.

We talked about her favourite memories and have plans to create a photo collage of sorts. Taking this a step further, families can collaborate to put together a yearbook for the class, digital or otherwise.

“Communicate with your child or student to let them know that their progress and hard work has not gone unnoticed,” said Dr. Mills. “Although they are in unprecedented times, their education and personal development matters.” Dr. Mills suggests giving specific praise. For example: “Your ability to learn your spelling words, especially while quarantined has not gone unnoticed. This is not an easy task when you consider all of the distractions you have had at home.”

As my quarantined mum brain was also brainstorming the transition, I wondered if elementary school kids could write letters or make a video for the students who will be moving into their grade next school year, explaining what to expect, for example, in fifth grade. I know my daughter and her classmates were already a little apprehensive about what middle school will be like. If teachers can coordinate this into their end-of-year curriculum, it would be helpful at all grade levels.

At the same time, teachers are struggling with letting go of students as well.

Younger kids can send cards or take turns reading this picture book to their teachers over Zoom.

If your family does something to mark the end of a school year, keep the tradition going in some way, whether that’s an ice cream party, picnic, or taking that “last day of school” photo.

The high schools in our city are still planning to reschedule graduation for August. As details unfold over the next several weeks about how districts across the country will handle these types of celebrations.

“If schools have well-established rite-of-passage rituals, it is only fair and supportive to both children and the community to acknowledge the impact of missing them this year,” said Meghan Fitzgerald, former elementary teacher and principal and cofounder of Tinkergarten. Even if you change the ritual, the celebration will give closure while teaching the life lesson of accepting what cannot be controlled.

Fitzgerald said that when she was teaching, her heart would break each June as she said goodbye to her students only to find they barely recognised her in September because they were already tuning in to what was in front of them. Kids are resilient and the sting we feel for them is natural, but let’s remember how fast they recover and move on.

While this is not how children had hoped their year would end, said Stephanie Flores-Koulish, PhD, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction for social justice at Loyola University Maryland. Parents and educators should know that while everything seems to be weighing on kids, our care for them is their constant right now. It’s their steadying force. “We want our kids to look back on this time when we wore pajamas until two in the afternoon and think, ‘I felt safe,’ ‘I felt understood,’ and ‘I felt cared for.'”