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Sharp Health News

Helping kids prepare to go back to school

April 15, 2021

The boy wearing a mask before going to school preventing outbreak of coronavirus.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, schools across the country soon shuttered and children everywhere began their adventures in online learning.

For some, the ability to learn from the comforts of home, in pajamas and away from social stress, was a relief. For others, it brought about feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Either way, as pandemic restrictions now begin to lift and schools open, the return to campuses across the country is bringing up a variety of emotions for kids in every grade.

“Returning to a classroom might be challenging for some, since kids have gotten used to — and perhaps prefer — virtual learning, which is somewhat slower paced and allows kids to choose whether cameras are on or off,” says Maricar Kline, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “On the other hand, being in a classroom could actually be better for kids who need more one-on-one time or who might not have easy access to the internet.”

Whether a student seems excited or anxious to go back to school in person, Kline cautions they might find themselves worrying about things, such as:
  • Interacting with people face-to-face again, which might feel uncomfortable because interactions have largely been via text, social media and video conferencing.
  • Peer and friend groups might not be the same because they have been “away” from each other for a year, and getting together with friends might be hard if families have different boundaries and concerns related to COVID-19.
  • Returning to sports and activities could be difficult for kids who haven't been training or practicing as rigorously and consistently as they would during a normal school year.
Skills for school success
Kline says that kids may feel distressing or unpleasant emotions triggered by different situations as they return to school. Awareness of their emotions and knowing what to do in those moments, she says, are key.

“‘Cope ahead’ is a skill taught in therapy, specifically in dialectical behavior therapy, known as DBT,” she says. “The goal is to know ahead of time what you will do and how you will cope in a stressful situation.”

Parents can take the following steps to help their children cope ahead:
  1. Ask them to imagine a stressful situation, such as a group of friends they used to sit with at lunch is now sitting somewhere else and there is no more room at the table.
  2. Encourage them to identify what specific ways they can cope, such as taking 8 deep breaths in and out before finding another place to sit.
  3. Have them practice taking 8 deep breaths in and out 3 times a day.
“Remind them that these tools will help them get through a difficult moment,” Kline says, “but not wholly solve the issue or resolve their problems.”

Important questions to ask
Kline recommends that parents ask their children whether they prefer virtual or in-person education and activities. Talk about why they might prefer one over the other. Together, everyone can make a decision about whether they will return full time or perhaps consider a hybrid model that many school districts offer.

“Whichever form of education they choose, give grace when it comes to grades and sports,” Kline says.

Most importantly, Kline encourages parents to talk — and listen — to their children. She suggests parents might:
  • Ask them what they are struggling with now, talk about what they imagine happening as life gets ‘back to normal,’ and help them identify reasonable goals to slowly get back on track.
  • Ask them what you can do to help and what you are doing now that isn’t helpful.
  • Ask them specific questions, rather than open-ended questions. For example, “When your friends didn't invite you to the lunch table, did you feel mad?”
  • Provide specific feedback and express their feelings — not thoughts, which come across as judgments. For example, “You were in your room more today and didn’t want to eat lunch or dinner, which makes me worry.”
Signs of struggle to watch for
As children begin to transition back to more in-person classes and activities, Kline suggests parents keep an eye out for signs that they may be struggling.

These include:
  • Ongoing decline in grades, which could mean the subject is hard or the change in teaching format is challenging, but could also have other, more emotional, causes.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, such as insomnia or excessive sleep, which can be hard to gauge with teenagers, who tend to sleep a lot.
  • Changes in eating patterns, including excessive eating or not eating meals.
  • Changes in socialization, such as avoiding phone calls or texts from friends, or not talking to friends when around them.
  • Changes in behavior, such as not laughing or even not talking back to or challenging parents — all normal teen behaviors — as much as they did before.
  • Changes in thinking — it’s important to take note of whether their thoughts are future-oriented and they are looking forward to things.
“Listen to what they say and what they are not saying,” Kline says. “Unlike an adult, who might be very clear about their suffering and what is causing them to suffer, kids might simply say, ‘I just don't feel like it. What's the point? My life sucks.’”

Kline encourages parents to talk to their child’s doctor if they are experiencing excessive sadness, anxiety or worry for an extended period. Seek emergency care or call 911 if they may be at risk for self-harm or suicide.

Learn more about mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and read important COVID-19 information from Sharp.

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