Rethinking Normal: Back-to-School Tips for 2021

Most schools are planning for in-person instruction this fall, and though debates continue across the country about mask mandates and vaccine requirements as new variants emerge, many parents, educators, and kids are hoping for a return that is as close to normal as possible. But, what exactly does “back to normal” mean? 

Unfortunately, “normal” wasn’t working for many students prior to COVID-19. Kids were overloaded with homework, extracurriculars, and family or work obligations. They were highly stressed and not getting nearly enough sleep. Since the remote learning experiment of 2020 upended schedules and traditional approaches to school and family life, parents now have an opportunity to leverage important lessons learned during this time to build a new normal that better supports students’ well-being and engagement with learning. Now is the time to reassess what is best for your children and family and to consider establishing new norms. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

Resist the urge to overschedule

After months of restrictions, the instinct might be to dive back in and immediately pack your child’s schedule with the sports, arts, and other activities they’ve been missing. Many kids are eager to join their peers in extracurricular activities that they enjoy, and many parents want (or need) kids to be out of the house, off devices, and engaging in healthy tasks. We suggest easing back into activities slowly and letting your child take the lead.

  • Consider encouraging your child to pick their favorite and most meaningful activity to try first, while keeping in mind that some kids may not be interested in going back to an old activity. Maybe their interests have changed; maybe they aren’t ready for close contact in person; maybe they feel a little overwhelmed socially. Be patient.
  • Remind kids who want to “do it all,” or those who have taken on extra work or family obligations, that they may need to cut back in order to prioritize time for schoolwork.

Talk to your child and honor their feelings. Together, try to create a healthy schedule and pace that fits your child’s needs as well as yours.

Avoid excessive focus on grades 

Some parents are worried about learning loss from last year and may feel pressure to load kids up with additional coursework and tutoring. No one wants to see their child “left behind,” but parents may be panicking prematurely. Educators know that kids will likely be starting from different places this year, and many are adjusting their curricula and arranging for extra resources for students.

Filling your child’s schedule with extra academics or enrichment activities out of fear will likely add unnecessary pressure and anxiety to an already stressful situation. 

High school students and their parents may be even more focused on grades due to new “test optional” college admissions policies. Be mindful about the extra pressure your child may be experiencing, and try your best not to add to it. Keep the big picture in mind when it comes to test scores, grades, and college admissions. Wait for the school to recommend when extra help may be needed. Aim for a healthy child – physically and emotionally – who is motivated and engaged. If you keep that as your North Star, you will likely change some of your behavior and messaging about grades and school.

Prioritize sleep and PDF 

The research is clear that teens who get 8-10 hours of sleep each night are physically and emotionally healthier and do better in school. Some students in our 2020 survey noticed that extra sleep due to later start times and a lack of commute allowed them to be more efficient and focused on their schoolwork. Now that schools may be back to earlier start times, your family may need to shift routines and prioritize a healthy sleep schedule. This may mean removing devices from bedrooms an hour before bedtime each night and making sure there is enough time in the day to complete schoolwork and extracurricular activities to allow for a full 8-10 hours of sleep. Use our Time Wheel activity to help your child align their priorities with their schedule.  

We also found that for some families, the lack of extracurriculars and commute times during the pandemic resulted in more playtime, downtime, and family time (PDF).  We know that time spent on PDF every day serves as a protective factor in keeping kids physically and emotionally healthy.

  • What has your child enjoyed doing most during their downtime and playtime this year? Reading books, playing with the dog, cooking?  Help your child find a way to maintain time for those activities when they go back to school in person. 
  • What family activities have you valued most during the pandemic? Sunday night board games, Zoom calls with a grandparent, regular family dinners and walks?  As life gets busier for both kids and parents, identify and prioritize the most important family activities you want to preserve.  
  • Finally, keep in mind that after a year of technology overload, it may be time to reevaluate your family ground rules. All screen time is not created equal. Consider how much time is spent consuming vs. creating online and what PDF activities kids may be missing when they are on screens for so long. 

Focus on human connections and relationships

While so many of us are longing for a return to in-person school and activities, reentry may be challenging. Returning to a highly structured routine with limited flexibility may be a welcome relief for some and a major stress for others. Some kids have thrived emotionally and/or academically during remote learning – avoiding social pressures, bullying, or racism. Other kids have experienced unprecedented isolation from their peers, teachers, communities, and support systems. Some will bounce back quickly and reestablish their relationships and connections. Others may be feeling a lack of confidence in their social skills and need more support and encouragement as they return, especially as they re-enter spaces that didn’t feel safe prior to the pandemic.

You know your child best. Pay close attention and listen to their concerns. If they show signs of not wanting to go back to school, investigate what might be the root cause. If the first week is hard, consider whether this may be because of exhaustion, social anxiety, not feeling academically ready, or legitimate fears about Covid. Check in with your child regularly, normalize their experiences, and offer reassurance. Reach out to teachers and counselors at school if your child is feeling particularly disconnected and could use some help reestablishing trusting relationships.  

Support your children where they are

We all need to be flexible as schools reopen this fall – policies and schedules may continue to shift, and kids and adults alike will need to adapt accordingly. My guess is that our children have learned important coping skills in 2020 that will serve them well as they navigate back to school. Have patience during this period; everyone, including parents and teachers, may need a bit more time to settle in and establish routines. Don’t assume your child’s experiences and emotions about returning to school match your own. As you create a “new normal” for your family, show grace to others who may choose to do things differently and stay attentive to the health and well-being of each family member as you work together to negotiate a safe, sane, and balanced return to school.


Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. 

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