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. These include:
1. Social awkwardness
“Because of COVID, children have lost contact with friends and general opportunities,” said Kenneth Shamlian, clinical psychologist at University of Rochester Medical Center in the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics. “Many fear that things could go back to staying isolated and away from each other.”
Sticking with a routine at home and adding a moderate number of extracurricular activities and outings will help children feel more at ease with interacting with others.
2. School violence
With school shootings frequently in the news, it is little wonder some children may feel unsafe about returning to school.
“These incidences are shaping their expectations,” Shamlian said. “There’s heightened awareness that the world is not always a safe place. Kids are having trouble coping.”
Work around: He advises parents to limit exposure to media and assure them that their school administration is working to make their school as safe as possible.
Most children experienced interruptions in their school routine last year with hybrid classes and different teachers because of staffing difficulties.
“Some children wonder, ‘Will I see my teacher again?’” Shamlian said. “There are notable disruptions in teaching staff with the economy and the job market. It has made for a lot less reliable world.”
It can also mean issues with back-to-school shopping. Certain items children want or need may not be readily available.
“For a lot of people, this has been the first time that no matter how much money you have, you still can’t get some of the things you want,” Shamlian said.
That can make the world seem unpredictable.
Work around: If possible, address your children’s concerns as they arise. If they worry about having different teachers, attend the school tour and open house. If they cannot obtain the school supplies they want, plan how you can acquire alternatives.
“Coping is usually tied to kids’ developmental level,” Shamlian said. “As a parent, you don’t have to share their anxiety, but you can validate what they’re expressing. If a child is overwhelmed, the best recipe is giving time and space. When they come back down, that’s the time to address their concerns. Take time to ride that emotional wave so they can come back down and sound more rational.”
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 emotion 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.