By Tim Holmes, MA, MHA , President of MultiCare Behavioral Health Network
The new school year is starting, and it looks very different. Home-based, online learning is new for most families. There are many challenges to navigate. Most parents are struggling to balance the needs of their children with the demands of their jobs. This can be stressful. Children may be picking up on the anxiety around them. They may also be disappointed about missing the excitement of a new school year.
In the face of so much tension and unpredictability, structure and routine can be comforting. Holding a family meeting to discuss the new school year can be reassuring to children. A family meeting can help everyone manage the stress and uncertainty of this unique situation.
Set the Tone for Success
A back-to-school family meeting can be a good way for parents to calm fears, build confidence, and help their children look forward to a new, different school experience. These meetings are also a chance for kids to feel heard and supported. It sends the message that adults have everything under control (even if it doesn’t feel that way)!
Pre-Planning for Family Meetings
First, take the time to consider what you want from your meeting. What outcomes do you hope to achieve? For example, you might want to agree on expectations and routines — for children as well as parents. You might want to decide:
- How will the school day be structured? When will breaks occur? Mealtimes?
- How will play or exercise be built into the day?
- If parents are working from home, what are the expectations for noise level?
- What chores are expected of each child, and when will they be done?
- When is it okay to interrupt a parent for help, or to resolve a conflict?
- What can kids expect from you if they need assistance?
Once you are clear on what you want from your family meeting, it’s time to set an agenda. The length of your meeting and the items covered will depend on the ages and attention span of your children.
Sample Family Meeting Agenda for Back to School
- Start with a simple, declarative statement about why you are calling the meeting. A good example is, “School will be different this year, so we want to talk about it.”
- Share your agenda. Ask your children if there is anything they want to add. This will help you understand their concerns and help them feel involved.
- As you work through your agenda and agreements are made, you may want to help children make a checklist or write out their agreed-upon routine. For grade school children, you could make a list of your child’s daily actions. The list could include things like:
- Agree to attend online class for two hours each morning
- Set table for breakfast and lunch
- Play quietly after school
- If you are working from home, it may be difficult for young children to understand why they can’t interrupt. It can be helpful to remind them of the times you will be together and write this into the daily routine. For instance, you may help them get ready in the morning, have lunch together, chat during bath time, or read a bedtime story each night. You may also want to schedule some favorite activities like a family game night or a hike on your day off.
- For adolescents and teens, help create and reinforce daily structure. Understand their schedules and plan to check in on them regularly. Agree on how much time will be spent on social media and non-school online activity.
- End your meeting by asking for feedback. Ask your children what was helpful. Compliment them on their contributions. Decide together if you want to schedule regular family meetings to discuss issues that will arise during the year.
Helpful Hints for Family Meetings
Choose a good time and location: It’s best to have family meetings in your home and without distraction. Avoid mealtimes and bedtimes. Good places to gather are common areas like a family room with the TV off.
Take Turns: When family discussions get going everyone wants to be heard. If there is a lot of interrupting or crosstalk it may help to have an object that the speaker can hold to indicate it is their turn. A tennis ball or stuffed animal can be passed to each person in turn. When they hold that item, no one else can talk!
Respect choices, but set boundaries: As often as possible, allow family members to vote on decisions or make choices, but within limits. For instance, instead of asking how long they want breaks to be, ask if they prefer two 15-minute breaks or three 10-minute breaks. Allowing children to make guided choices gives them a sense of control over their day and helps them feel valued.
Be positive: Set an optimistic tone for the meeting. Yes, remote learning has its challenges, but there are also advantages. If your children are disappointed about not attending school, try asking what they won’t miss, or what they will be able to do at home they can’t do at school. If you are working from home, you can also share some of the pros and cons of your situation as well.
Pandemic Challenges and Opportunities
The coronavirus pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives. It’s creating high levels of stress and anxiety. You can’t change that, but you can help your children by modeling healthy coping skills. You can demonstrate how to navigate difficult challenges and be resilient in the face of an uncertain future. You can use this opportunity to build strong bonds with your children and create treasured memories and experiences that will become part of your family story, to be passed on to future generations.
As you navigate this pandemic with your children, remember that they are looking to you for guidance. They will respond to your attitudes and perspective and take their cues from your behavior. Family meetings are a good way to help children feel safe, feel heard, and feel involved. Most importantly, family meetings remind everyone that, as a family, you are all in this together.