Children who have headed back to the classroom this fall are facing unusual challenges as they return to full-time in-person learning this school year.
“This year is definitely different and unique,” said Monica Dedhia, program manager of access, crisis and community engagement at the Child & Family Center. “A big thing to consider is that going back to school — even though it is back in person — the expectation that it’s going to be ‘normal’ as pre-pandemic is not necessarily the case … given that it’s been a year and a half of a lot of uncertainty and loss.”
Whether a younger child worried about changes in their friendships or an older one worried about getting into college, students of all ages are facing unprecedented hurdles, as the year of remote learning took an emotional, mental and developmental toll.
“Kids have experienced a lot of loss, whether it be personal losses of family members or loved ones, but also losses of experiences or milestones that they may have expected,” Dedhia added.
Jeanine Fairall, director of operations at Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley, has a third-grader of her own Mountainview Elementary School, noting that back to school has been “a huge adjustment for the whole family, (and) I think that’s really the No. 1 thing is that it’s not just your child that’s going through a transition, but it’s the whole family.”
As students across the SCV return to in-person learning for the first time in a year and a half, parents have many challenges to help their kids tackle. So, here are some tips on how parents can help their kids get into back-to-school mode now that summer is over.
Develop a routine
Making sure that your child has a predictable routine can help kids feel more secure, Dedhia and Fairall agreed.
In fact, studies suggest that predictable, repetitive routines are calming and help reduce anxiety.
“Consistency in expectations is just so important for a child to feel secure, so they know what’s going to happen next in the midst of all the chaos,” Fairall said.
Preparing them for what’s to come
Dedhia suggests creating a “mental health first aid kit” for your children by preparing them when it comes to facing uncertainty as the pandemic continues.
This includes talking to your child about what will happen if a classmate — or they — test positive and then has to quarantine, for example.
Validate their feelings
Rather than trying to fix or minimize your child’s feelings — as most are instinctually prone to doing to protect their kids — validating those feelings is key.
Letting them voice their concerns, listening, then talking about how those worries can be managed and processing those feelings is vital to overcoming them, Dedhia and Fairall said.
“Those worries will continue to stay in their thoughts, and it may impact their academic performance, their mental health, their sleep patterns … so rather than trying to avoid those conversations, I would lean into those conversations,” Dedhia added.
Parents should be checking in with their children daily, whether via conversation or observation, such as looking for changes in sleep patterns, diet or appetite, or increased irritability, isolation or worries.
Set the tone
It’s also important to be a role model for your child, as you are setting the stage with how they address and manage conflict and stress, Dedhia said.
“Modeling how to express feelings and how to communicate thoughts will allow and create safety for their child to also have that same freedom of (saying), ‘I’m having a really bad day, this is what I need,’ versus it being presented more as an irritability attitude,” Dedhia added.
Parents should also set the tone when their child is acting up, de-escalating the situation and staying calm rather than matching their attitude, Fairall added.
Find the right balance for your child
Whether it be in extracurriculars or day-to-day activities, finding a balance that’s right for your child is important to their socio-emotional health.
Additionally, letting them be a part of the conversation and of decisions is helpful in allowing them to accept changes.
“I think the biggest thing is just not assuming,” Dedhia said. “Oftentimes we assume, ‘They must be going through this,’ but just ask a simple question of ‘how are you feeling today.’ and ‘what do you want.”
This balance includes letting the little things slide, and that for some, less is more, Fairall added, noting that finding time for downtime is important in the transition so as to not add any additional stress.
Take small steps
Creating tangible, small steps to attaining goals is important in setting kids up for success, Dedhia said.
So rather than creating long-term goals that can be overwhelming, set your child up for success on realistic and attainable goals in the short term.
Dedhia suggests talking about their expectations, supporting them and creating realistic goals with the appropriate tools.
Lean on your resources
Here in the SCV, schools and local organizations — like the Child & Family Center — provide children with a number of resources, such as Wellness Centers, counseling programs and academic assistance.
“Early intervention is the best way, so if you see that your child is struggling, reaching out to support systems,” Dedhia said.
Talk to your child’s teachers, counselors, mentors, whether it be within sports, extracurriculars or the spiritual world, Dedhia added.
These partners can be your child’s “safety net,” Fairall said, adding that the Boys & Girls Club also provides many of these resources for its members, such as academic assistance and social-emotional wellness.
Mental Health America created a Back to School toolkit, “Facing Fears, Supporting Students,” which aims to help students, parents and school personnel with their mental health as the 2021 school year begins. For more information, visit mhanational.org/back-school.
The Child & Family Center is located at 21545 Centre Pointe Parkway in Santa Clarita. For more information, visit childfamilycenter.org or call 661-259-9439.