After a very, very long year-and-a-half of uncertainty, most kids are resuming in-person school in the fall. And while that’s great news, it may not be smooth sailing for every child. “One of our major concerns for kids is anxiety in general,” says Christopher Lynch, PhD, director of pediatric behavioral medicine at Goryeb Children’s Hospital/Atlantic Health System Children’s Health in Morristown. “Some kids haven’t been in the classroom at all for almost 18 months. We’re also asking kids to do behaviors that weren’t safe or okay a short while ago, and that can be tough emotionally to absorb.”
Fortunately, most kids adjust well and have positive changes in mood as soon as they return to school. But because we’ve just come through an unprecedented year, it’s still important to monitor your child’s mental health and watch for potential warning signs that they’re not coping well. “Kids express themselves through actions,” says Cheryl Ann Kennedy, MD, professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. “Most kids— especially very young ones— are not going to be able to tell you ‘I’m feeling depressed or frustrated’ or ‘I had a bad night’s sleep.’” No matter what their age, if you see abrupt changes in your child’s behavior such as withdrawing or isolating from family and friends, overreacting to minor incidents or discipline or trouble sleeping or eating, talk to your pediatrician, who’s always your first line for support.
Here’s what you can do to help your kids navigate the unique challenges of returning to in-person learning this fall:
TALK IT OVER
Ask how your child feels about returning to school. It’s a chance to hear his or her perspective and dispel rumors or misinformation your child may have heard. While it’s fine to say you’re concerned, too, focus on how your family will stay safe. “As parents, we’re modeling resilience and showing our kids how to process anxiety,” says Lynch. “It’s not about putting emotions aside but being able to understand our feelings and use them as guideposts for coping.”
GET YOUR KIDS IN A POSITIVE MINDSET
Like many things in life, perspective is everything. “You prepare for the new school year by buying new backpacks, uniforms or school supplies, and you can also help them prepare for good mental health,” says Kennedy. “Have a conversation about your family’s expectations—not that you want them to get all A’s, but that they agree to be willing to try their best, and you’re willing to work with them to help them through the school year.”
MAKE YOUNG KIDS FEEL SAFE
“The most significant challenge to kids from preschool to early elementary is helping them cope with changing rules and expectations,” says Lynch. “Young kids thrive on routine, and they like clear directions. It’s not as easy for them to adapt to changes as they unfold as it is for older children.”
Help them feel protected by emphasizing the ways you’re going to work together to stay safe at school. “Don’t get focused on specific rules such as ‘mask/no mask’ but rather the reasons we’re asking them to do certain things,” says Lynch. “Kids are smart and will understand if you say something like, ‘We stay home when we’re sick so we don’t get other kids sick.’”
HELP GRADE SCHOOLERS LOVE LEARNING
“From 3rd to 5th grade, we’re transitioning now at this age from ‘school is social’ to ‘school is a place we go to learn,’” says Lynch. The emphasis should be on developing academic habits such as learning to concentrate on tasks and building good organizational skills, which a lot of kids missed out on during remote learning. Kids this age may be a little better about expressing frustration verbally by saying something like, “I hate school!” This is an opportunity to talk about what’s specifically bothering them. For example, you may learn they love math but hate reading. Then talk about the reasons they may be struggling and find ways to offer support, such as a tutor. “You’re helping them move from being frustrated to problem-solving,” says Lynch.
NURTURE MIDDLE SCHOOLERS’ FRIENDSHIPS
Middle school is a time of social development, when friendships begin to bond kids, and some kids may feel left out because they missed most social opportunities during the past 18 months, says Lynch. Your child may not be able to explain their feelings but will tend to show frustration by being irritable.
This age group is all about the notion of “fairness,” so talk about what they missed and how they feel about it. Then help them get involved in activities and socializing again. It’s also common at this age for them to start to connecting more with their peers than you. That’s fine as long as they’re not withdrawing completely.
ENCOURAGE HIGH SCHOOLERS TO FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
The main concern throughout high school is maintaining motivation in academics, sports, music, theater or whatever your child enjoys. “These activities provide kids with a mental anchor and they got disrupted, so it can be hard for them to get back into it,” says Lynch. Encourage them to pick these interests up again to help them stay connected and get inspired about their future. Granted, it may be tough to tell what’s “normal” for teens because hormones are surging and moods change by the minute. But as long as your kids have a supportive peer group, don’t worry too much if they seem to be rejecting you; it’s part of being a teen. But you know your child best. If anything is out of character, especially if it’s an abrupt change, trust your gut, says Kennedy. Reach out to your pediatrician and school resources for help.