The School Year is Ending. With No Real End.
How to Help Your Kids Find Closure
By Paula Sayag, Ph.D., Director of Early Childhood, Temple Beth Ami, Rockville, MD
School years should end with picnics and parties, hugs and happy tears, summer shopping and vacation planning. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. But this year feels all wrong, and none of our go-to year-end rituals are possible. How can we help children make sense of this, explain what it is that’s ending, and think about what may happen next?
When asked this question, I thought about what it really means to end a year and transition to a new phase in a child’s life. I thought about the messages we are trying to teach children by marking time and how we can apply those ideas to our unusual current reality.
Here are some things parents can do with their children:
Reflect. One key element of ending a year is doing a retrospective. We remember all the fun things we did: favorite songs or stories, art projects that gave us the greatest pride, the best birthday parties, or perhaps our winter vacation. We can still do that. Children will enjoy reviewing their year, including the part when they saw their teachers on Facetime or had playdates on Zoom. It’s an emotionally healthy and educationally beneficial exercise too, as it allows us to tell stories about ourselves and our interactions and think about the sequence of events in our lives. Start conversations with your children by using pictures from the year, or your personal or school calendar. Some children may enjoy writing (drawing, dictating, annotating) a story about their year to share with family. Others may want to choose some special pieces of the year’s schoolwork that they treasure most and create a memory book.
Measure growth. Completing a year is also about recognizing the developmental advances that have occurred. Your child can identify skills they now have that they didn’t have when this school year started—going on a playdate without their parent, writing their name, tying their shoes, riding a bike, reading longer books, etc. Children will enjoy seeing a picture of their first day of this school year and comparing it to how much older they look now! Do you have their height recorded from then and now, or clothes that no longer fit, or videos where they can hear how their language has evolved? They want to know that they have grown since the fall, and that they are ready to move on to the next step.
Anticipate. Part of finishing a school year is looking toward the next one. We talk about having a new teacher, or starting a new school, making new friends (and keeping the old), buying a new lunch box, and accepting new challenges to master more skills and learn more about their world. We may not know what the new school year will look like, but we do know that all of these things will still happen. We can consider the future, as long as we keep expectations realistic and recognize that such anticipation may cause excitement for some children and anxiety for others. Talk about the following school year only to the extent that your child is able and willing to entertain such thoughts.
Say good-byes. Saying good-bye is an experience that we repeat over and over again, whether it’s separation anxiety in infancy, leaving parents for our first day of preschool, going off to college or getting married. Leaving one setting and entering another takes strength, and learning to do it successfully takes practice. Even this year, there are ways to practice saying good-bye. Can you drive by your school and wave good-bye for now, even if you may return to the same building next year? Can your child draw a picture or make a thank you/ good-bye card to this year’s teacher? Can they say good-bye to an old lunch box, backpack, or some object that you are willing to discard to symbolize an end to the year? And of course, help children remember that even though they are saying good-bye and not returning in the same way to that setting, they will always have their memories and they can always visit again. Nothing makes a teacher happier than seeing alumni!
Even this highly unusual year has some of the same underlying features as a normal year. There are ways you can help your child acknowledge the end of this school year, feel proud and grateful for their experiences and accomplishments, enjoy their memories and concretize them for future review, and be ready and strong to tackle next steps.