Kids & School: How to Support Your Child's Mental Health & Well-being When Starting School During a Pandemic by Noel McDermott
It is difficult to gauge the impact the coronavirus has had on youngsters, but I believe that the return to school is the right thing for children’s mental health and well-being. Schools offer a resilience-fostering environment, and resilience in these times is desperately needed – it psychologically helps us cope with life’s knocks offering positive development despite adversity. Here I'll address how school is without a doubt one of the most important potential resilience sources for children.
Here are two common worries of parents:
Infection and Cross Infection
Children, as most people know by now, don’t suffer severe symptoms from becoming infected by the virus and there is increasing evidence that children don’t spread the infection as much as adults either. To counter concerns, it’s important to maintain good infection control and ensure your children wash their hands properly when they come home. As parents you must follow the school’s guidelines on dropping your kids off, socially distance, wear face masks, don’t enter the school building, etc. If your child’s school has an outbreak, you will need to isolate at home for 14 days.
Separation anxiety may occur in younger children going back to school, and all kids may have fears about returning. Signs of anxiety will most often be behavioral.
In younger kids, regression into developmentally earlier behaviors can occur, such as:
- thumb sucking
- needing a special toy or comforter
- temper issues
- bed wetting
In older children, issues could include:
- changes to eating routines or appetite issues
- problems with energy levels, too much or too little
- becoming withdrawn
Having anxieties about this is pretty normal, and remember, you have probably dealt with your kids being anxious or unhappy many times before. So, ask yourself what worked then. It’s going to be some combination of understanding and increased soothing behaviors, such as time together, hugs, kisses, special times, treats, talking, fun activities.
Keep your own fears on check and don’t read the news – news around this issue is driven by adult agendas not child agendas. Instead, stay informed from the NHS, from the World Health Organization (WHO) and from .gov sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), etc. Your kids going back to school is the right thing and it’s a good thing for them. If your usual interventions as a parent don’t work and you remain worried about your child’s responses, then talk to your child's doctor and/or talk to their school, they will be very happy to help.
Dealing With Separation Anxiety in Kids
The best approach to this is to imagine this not as "going back to school" but as starting at school. What were your kids like when they first started school, what worked with them at that point? It’s useful to frame it in this way as it has been a long time away from school and upon return many of the processes will have changed (bubbling, queuing, parents having restricted access, no hugging, masks, hand washing, etc.). It’s a whole new ball game and the strangeness of it is likely to produce feelings of significant loss and anxiety.
How to Help Kids Deal With Their Anxieties
In general, what works with helping kids deal with their anxieties, especially when this is predictable and therefore predictable anxiety, is to increase those behaviors that provide comfort and support prior to starting back. For the first few weeks after going back:
- More cuddles.
- More one-to-one time.
- Lots of time to talk about things.
- Normalization techniques. ("Of course you are feeling worried darling, we all feel that way when starting school/seeing friend's after a long time, etc.”)
- Encouraging self-soothing through special toys, for example.
- Try to organize contact with classmates before school begins.
- Try to arrange a visit to school before it begins to reacquaint your child (we call this transition work).
- Model emotional communication by sharing what your fears about starting school would be (as though you were the child).
How Parents and Caregivers Can Deal With Their Own Fears
First is to reality test your fears, get hold of the school and discuss the new processes with them. Play out scenarios with them to ensure you are clear – mostly we are afraid of the unknown, the known we soon learn to manage. Talk to other parents and share your fears (avoid the drama merchants here) to get their experience and to ground yourself. Ensure you get reputable sources of information on the virus and control measures, so your fears are based on reality and not on group thinking. Be compassionate with yourself about your worries – we are all experiencing it and it’s normal to have concerns. Talk as a couple about it and ensure you are both on the same page in terms of your parenting decisions.
A Safe School Environment
Schools provide many things for kids:
- The emotional and psychological health of children by promoting neurological growth
- Allowing children to experience social challenge and diversity in a safe and supportive environment
- Developing learning in a social environment that emphasizes positive relationships and trust
- Mitigating against adversity through the safe adults in the school (teachers, etc.) who can in their empathetic, warm relationships buffer the negative impact of adversity.
Social Interaction Is Central to Healthy Development
The social learning aspects are crucial in child development, both in the sense that learning takes place socially and that children learn impact social connection skills. Through interaction with peers and adults in the school children grow emotionally, cognitively and psychologically. Children that have faced difficulties in the home environment can find those deficits reduced by schools, especially when the attachment relationships are looked at closely. Attachment is a strong, warm bond between a child and adult that encourages safety and growth.
Schools do so much more than force feed a curriculum into children. They help a child’s global development goals, they prepare a child to move into complex social interaction central to success in life, they mitigate against harm caused in other areas of the child’s life. All these areas, more than at any other time in our collective history, are absolutely essential for our children and crucial in understanding why we need to re-open schools and get our children back into them. We cannot hope that our mental health services will cope with the developmental and other trauma that children are and will be experiencing due to not being in school and due to growing up in a pandemic. A significant portion of the damage the pandemic is doing psychologically to our children can be mitigated simply by going back to school.
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