Back to School and Cognitive Dissonance

The term cognitive dissonance means to have conflicting feelings, beliefs, or behaviors that cause internal discomfort. It can also describe the feeling of disappointment one feels when things do not go as anticipated. With schools across the country returning to their own personal version of a new academic year this month, students, teachers, staff, and parents collectively face the potential for repeatedly experiencing different forms of cognitive dissonance. 

The rural Georgia county I reside in is fortunate to have a low number of local cases and our school system has returned in person, with the option to go online. While my two sons were beyond excited to return to their traditional classroom setting, albeit with some precautionary differences, I know in the back of my mind some type of quarantine or closure could be on the horizon at any time. How can I help my children cope with what will surely feel like a “setback” if they are to suddenly return to in-home virtual schooling?

Cognitive dissonance is an important signal. It signifies to us that something is amiss. Whether we are required to change our beliefs or our behavior in order to restore harmony is an evaluative process we must work through. Reconciling internal dissonance is a great skill to teach children early on, as they will face a multitude of “disappointments” throughout their lives. The process of decision-making inherently carries some cognitive dissonance, because in any decision, we are faced with giving up the benefits of the alternate option we did not choose. We weigh these and evaluate them for the best course of action, but we still sometimes have to find a way to reconcile what is lost. 

Whether you are wading through the decision making process of how to return safely to school or wondering how to navigate the uncertainty this school year may present ahead, below are some suggestions for reconciling the cognitive dissonance you may experience. 

Do Your Best

More than a cliché self esteem booster, this phrase serves as a reminder that we make our decisions the best we can with the information we have at the time. If they don’t play out the way we thought they would, it doesn’t change the evaluative process we went through to make the choice in the first place. We can attribute the experience to lessons learned and make future decisions from a newly informed place. 

All Forward Motion Counts

This is an important lesson I learned long ago after experiencing the grief of losing my father. Just as in healing from grief, in any difficult endeavor, any amount of forward motion is valuable. It is when we become stuck, stagnant, or paralyzed with fear or discouragement that we are really in a dangerous place. Small increments may not seem like much at first, but over time, they add up to big changes and big progress. When you don’t know how or why or what do to, take that path that just keeps you in motion. Sometimes this may even apply to your decision making process. If you are faced with too many decisions and are feeling overwhelmed, try breaking your options down into smaller, more immediate choices. Ask yourself, “What one small decision can I make right now?” You don’t have to solve the whole thing at once, just keep moving. 

Practice and Model Resiliency

If there is a school closure or you or your child must quarantine, practice resiliency by maintaining a positive attitude. Explain openly and confidently to your child that it is simply time to “switch gears.” Avoid idle complaints or idle worry in front of your children. Children are attuned to the reactions of adults. A child’s outlook on a situation is highly dependent on how the adults in their proximity handle it. From our previous experience, my children and I have a routine for what homeschool looks like and a routine for what traditional school looks like. Being able to switch between these two with little disruption gives them a valuable experience of adaptability for change for all of life’s challenges ahead.

Deciding to move forward positively does not negate the adversity or the dangers you or your family members may face in the midst of this pandemic. But we still maintain the choice, in all decisions, to face our options with either a dismal and anxious ridden attitude or one of optimism and hope that we can navigate the terrain in a way that does not sacrifice our ability to learn from this experience and expand our growth for new endeavors. What a gift we can give our children if we can meet the challenges ahead with the latter attitude. 

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