By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
While returning to school in the fall should be a time of excitement for children, it can present issues that cause stress.
Most children experienced interruptions in their school routine last year with hybrid classes and different teachers because of staffing difficulties. That can make the world seem unpredictable.
Work around — “It’s about setting up structure and helping them readapt to the new normal of being back in school,” said Elizabeth Woike-Ganga, licensed clinical social worker and president and CEO of BestSelf Behavioral Health in Buffalo. “Make sure they have a specific time to get up, that they have space for homework and time for play. A consistent bedtime and structure is really important for a kids’ sense of safety and predictability. Part of what was so difficult about COVID is structures and schedules were upended. Kids didn’t have the support or supervision to set up new structures.”
Prepare for the school year by attending any open house or school tour available, especially if your children will be in a different building than last year. Many schools allow children to meet their teachers at these events, which can put children at ease.
2. Social awkwardness
Work around — Enrolling in a moderate number of extracurricular activities and outings will help children feel more at ease with interacting with others instead of plunging into a plethora of groups and activities. Low-key playdates for younger children can also help make socializing easier when the school year starts.
3. School violence
With school shooting frequently in the recent news, it is little wonder some children may feel unsafe about returning to school.
Work around — “We’re seeing more depression and anxiety because that sense of predictability was disrupted during the pandemic and school shootings exacerbate that more,” Woike-Ganga said. “With some of the older kids there’s increase in suicidal thoughts and self-harm.”
She advises parents to limit exposure to media, assure them that their school administration is working to make their school as safe as possible and to seek professional mental healthcare as needed.
4. Falling behind academically
Missing a few months of school in 2021 and attending hybrid school for part of the past school year means many students have acquired gaps in their education. This can be deeply troubling for students who have worked hard to earn good grades.
Work around — Although she acknowledges the academic gaps, Andrea Lighthouse, clinical psychologist and representative of the New York Association of School Psychologists, feels more concerned about social and emotional gaps.
“If they’re not settled, they won’t be able to learn,” Lighthouse said. “That’s the primary thing. The academic learning will come after.”
5. Mental health issues
“I feel like this past year has been a really challenging year,” Lighthouse said. “I’ve been a school psychologist for 18 years and 2021-2022 has been the most challenging.”
She said that if only one or two children needed support, “we’d wrap all kinds of support around that child. Having it happen to the entire population, they’ll react differently to the same circumstances. We’re all in new territory because we’ve never done this on a large scale.”
Work around — She encourages parents to reach out to their school’s mental health support if their children are not returning to their baseline mental health after a few weeks. Parents may notice behavioral changes, lower grades and children withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, social activities with peers and family activities.