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Celebrate Back to School, Even if You’re Staying Home

It may look very different, but a new school year is still something to celebrate.

For many of us, the first day of school will begin a strange, new educational experience that looks very little like our bygone days of backpacks and schoolyard drop-offs. Instead of boarding a bus, kids’ commutes may be just a few steps to their desks or kitchen tables. It is anticlimactic and surreal, to say the least.


It may be different, but a new school year is still something to celebrate. Your kids have grown, become more aware of the world around them, and we’ve survived! Plus, the right mindset is more important than ever, as there are so many more mental and emotional hurdles heaped upon our kids this year. A change in attitude can signal to kids that something new is beginning, even if their surroundings stay the same.


We don’t have all the answers, but we want to help. Of course, you know your kid best so if they respond more to sarcasm than sunshine, then make it snarky—it’s for them, not you, so do what lifts their spirits. With that in mind, here are some ideas for making the beginning of school special, even from home.

Countdown to School

Whether it’s on the calendar or whiteboard, a disappearing jar of pompoms (or treats), or some other elaborate craft, some visual way to mark time until school starts is a great way to get in the mindset, especially since “school” and “home” won’t look different and time has lost its meaning during the pandemic. Always having something to look forward to, even if it’s with some uncertainty, is such an important exercise for mental health.

Meet the Class

If your kids have friends in their class from last year—or if you want to be the friendly parent who reaches out to the new class email list—organize a socially distanced playdate or Zoom call with a handful of friends to have fun, catch up, and talk about the new school year. Depending on age and temperament of the kids you’re dealing with, this could be facilitated by a play exercise (you can even go in on a group activity like a virtual Snapology LEGO session) or as serious as a private talk session where they directly address worries and goals. Some kids aren’t going to want to vocalize or consciously focus on that scary stuff, so just seeing some familiar faces on the screen for playtime might assuage some stress without being too obvious about it.

Establish Boundaries

Part of what makes the concept of virtual or homeschool so challenging is that there is no clear distinction between home life and school. So—and bear with me here—even though your kids aren’t leaving the house, it might help mentally to go through the motions of packing lunch in a lunchbox and packing their backpacks, even if it’s just to go from the bedroom to the kitchen table. While this might sound a little silly, this whole situation is bananas, and it might get them in the mindset of being “in school” during the week. Plus, if you pack lunch the night before, it’s one less thing to do during the school day! You can even pack a special lunch for the first day with extra treats and a little note of encouragement. As with all these tips, this really depends on your individual kids, so if they are just not having the make-believe, don’t force it.


Additionally, creating a workspace can help focus the mind and body to learn. Whether that’s a separate room or just a corner of their room, work on making it feel distinctly apart from the distraction of toys, devices, and their comfy beds. Which brings us to…

Back to School Shopping

Even if they aren’t going back to school in person, you can still get excited with some new clothes, school supplies, and even “classroom” decorations. They may not be putting on a new backpack (or even shoes), but a special new outfit rather than pulling the same t-shirt and shorts they’ve worn all summer from the dresser can still be a nice way to help them feel that they are beginning a new chapter of their education.


Even if you already have leftover school supplies, buying some sparkly new ones together can also be exciting if it’s in your budget—Target and Five Below have many options for not much money. Or, if you want to use what you already have, buy (or make) a fun desk organizer for their new work area to make it feel special, too! If you’re working with limited space like we are in our apartment, a tiered cart is also a great addition—wheel it to the kitchen table and BOOM, instant classroom! Whether they will be working at the kitchen table or in a separate decked-out “classroom” in your house, outfitting it together can also be a nice way to look forward to virtual school.

Get Prepared

If your kids have a new laptop (or are getting one from school), make sure you take some time together to learn to use it. For small kids, this might be their first experience even using a laptop, so teaching them how to turn it on (and not mistakenly turn it off during school!), how to use the trackpad, and how to open programs, is a good first step. And if they seem intimidated or reluctant to learn, tell them it involves the same skills they will need to open YouTube on their own and watch countless toy unboxings—trust me, they will change their tune.


Taking time to make sure all the apps their teachers have indicated they need for school are installed, accounts are set up, and log-ins are preset can save so much time (and anxiety). Bookmark links like Google Classroom, their Zoom meetings, and more to save time as well.


The more kids can do these things on their own, the more confident they will feel (and the less they will call you for help when you’re trying to work in the next room).

First Day of School Photos!

Even if you aren’t going to school, commemorate the milestone. Make one of those signs (if you’re into that sort of thing), or just pose them in their spiffy new outfits at their new workspaces. Even if it is so different, this is still a new school year, so celebrate it like you would any other. In fact, since it’s so different, you’ll definitely want to remember this moment in time!

Plan Your Weekly Schedule, Including Extracurriculars

Even if they are staying home all week for school, visualizing a schedule on a wall calendar can help make things less overwhelming and help them look forward to what is coming next. In that same spirit, plan out some extracurricular activities, whether in person (if their favorite spaces are open) or virtually. So many favorites, from music lessons to coding to gymnastics and beyond, have successfully moved online. And if you need ideas, we’ll still have our virtual events posts to give you lots of drop-in ideas each week!

Bribery Will Get You Everywhere

To help ease from summer freedom to school plan a special dinner and/or treat at the end of the first day of school. And maybe something even more exciting at the end of their first week, why not? I’m not too proud to admit that we sometimes get our little girl to do her homework by promising a toy at the end of the week or treats at the end of the day. If that’s what it takes to motivate in this new, uncomfortable situation, do what you have to do.

Be Real and Keep Communication Open

This whole premise is weird, so admit it and be on the same team. Talk about last spring—what worked and what didn’t? How can things be improved at home, whatever the year throws you? While we’ve discussed lots of ways to greet the new school year with smiles and celebration, the truth is that some kids just aren’t going to feel that way no matter how cute your Pinterest-inspired chalkboard is.


We are still in the midst of a global crisis, and it’s important to make space to feel those dark feelings, and be there to talk about it. It’s okay to mourn the tragedy around us and still find purpose in schoolwork, goals, and community. It’s okay to resent the situation while still understanding how staying home keeps everyone safe. Talk with your kids about what they are looking forward to, and how they can still feel connected to their past selves, dreams, and friends even though their lives look so different now. And know that we will weather this storm together, even if we are apart.


Contributing Writer