By: Laura Miller, LMSW
Even in the absence of a global pandemic, the start of a new school year creates a long “to-do” list for parents; purchase new school supplies, meet teachers, pack school lunches…the list goes on! This year, as parents’ to-do lists expand to include navigating the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transition back to school has become daunting. Furthermore, children are faced with significant challenges as they too, navigate the unknowns of the pandemic and adjust to socially distant, and in some cases, completely remote learning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 7% of children have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, however current circumstances may prompt children to be more anxious than usual and parents must be prepared to best support their child’s changing needs. Keep reading for tips on how to support your child’s return to school, while prioritizing their (and your own!) physical and mental health.
Address Your Child’s Anxiety Head On
Start addressing your child’s anxiety by being mindful of signs and symptoms and create an open dialogue to identify any worries that they may be experiencing. You can then provide fact-based information to address their concerns. For example, you might ask, “How are you feeling about returning to school?” And then calmly say, “I can see that you are worried about getting sick while you’re at school. Let’s talk about how we can wear a mask, wash our hands, and practice social distancing to stay safe!” You can also check out the CDC’s checklist for more back to school planning.
After helping your child recognize their worries, reassure them that both you and their teachers are there to help. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings and discuss coping strategies to use when anxious. For example, you may suggest taking deep breaths, imagining themselves in a calming place, or using positive self-talk such as, “I can do this, and I can ask for help if I need it.” You might also alleviate some of your child’s anxiety by prepping them for the changes that they may experience this school year. For example, you can discuss differences such as desks spread out, designated ways to walk in the hallways, wearing a mask and washing hands often.
Create a Family Routine
In a previous blog, we discussed the benefits of routine for kids, yet after months of remote learning and summer break, returning to a school routine may prove challenging. Put together a schedule to designate times for meals, exercise, learning activities and free time. Furthermore, give your child choices within each category to promote their own independence. It’s especially important for children engaging in remote learning to have a separate space for the “school day” and to schedule breaks, so that your child is able to get a snack/stretch and stay motivated throughout their learning day. Children often have trouble with sleeping during a stressful period and will also benefit from a normal nighttime routine. Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ tips on creating a sleep schedule.
Encourage Positive Behavior
In some cases, children who experience anxiety are also more likely to engage in disruptive behaviors or become oppositional. Children may not always know how to communicate their stress and can act out instead. Use your attention as a powerful tool; pay attention and reinforce positive behaviors with labeled praise; “Great job picking up after yourself, thank you!”and discourage other unwanted behaviors by ignoring them. Furthermore, use rewards and privileges to reinforce positive behaviors; you can make a sticker chart for behaviors such as completing homework and getting along with siblings and even create a system to redeem stickers for other privileges.
Model Taking Care of Yourself
It makes sense for parents to also feel overwhelmed and stressed, many are being tasked with completing their full-time jobs virtually, while also engaging in child-care; an incredible amount of responsibility. You can support your child’s mental health by modeling how you are taking care of you! Taking care of yourself physically will boost your mood and better prepare you for stressful moments. Keep reading here for more tips on how to remain in control.
All families are faced with new and difficult challenges this year, don’t hesitate to reach out for support when you need it. Take time to be truly present with your child and engage in fun activities together to help build a supportive and safe environment this year. Furthermore, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s teacher to ask questions, and gather more information about your child’s functioning in school; teachers are allies and are there to help! Lastly, remember that by getting through these challenges now, you’re helping your child build lifelong coping skills!