The school year will be different: Now what?
By Ashley Schoof, PsyD, LP, BC-TMH, Christian Family Solutions
In a typical school year – one that we would define as “normal” – any number of children would struggle with a variety of conditions, Anxiety, depression, attention problems, and academic issues affect up to 20 percent of the school-age population. That’s true for a normal school year.
This school year is anything but normal. New formats leave children with extra stress and anxiety specifically regarding the unpredictability of the current situation. Children need to know what they can expect in a day. This structure has been challenged in the last few months and will continue to be challenged.
What can parents and teachers do to help ease the stress? That’s a question I’m hearing from many parents and teachers. None of us has gone through a pandemic before, and we are bound to have anxiety, uneasiness, and other uncomfortable feelings with the current ‘normal.’ Teamwork will be important to create the best learning environment for children.
Here are a few common questions and answers for parents and teachers to consider together:
Q: What kind of anxiety can I expect as children transition back to school?
A: Separation anxiety is created because a student wants to be with his or her parents. If a school is going back to in person, and school looks different than it has in the past, then there may be a higher rate of separation anxiety. The student has fear that something is going to happen to the parents while they are away. Children will have a harder time adjusting to classroom life again because they have gotten used to spending more time at home and doing virtual school with their parents. It will be important to engage the students in fun, teambuilding activities the first few weeks of school so students remember that it is a safe place. Also, developing structure and routine is very important every school year, and especially this year.
Q: How can teachers partner with parents to provide care and support in the variety of settings where learning will take place?
A: Communicate often! Both parents and teachers will need to communicate now more than ever. It would be wise to develop an office hours approach to communication. Teachers could identify a block of hours each week that parents could communicate with the teacher. Additionally, a check-in with parents, especially parents who are doing virtual school with their children, goes a long way. Parents appreciate knowing that they are part of the team and that teachers want to hear from them.
It may be helpful to facilitate a group of parents together to discuss what is going well and where they could use help. It is likely that parents are experiencing similar feelings and stress as their children. Virtual school, while individual in nature, will require support in the form of a parent/teacher community. Teachers would benefit from encouraging that type of communication.
Q: How does a teacher identify a student that is struggling, especially when virtual learning is taking place?
A: Ask the student how he or she is feeling. Specifically ask about feelings, not just how they are doing. Students will often say “fine” or “good” to these questions. Ask further. Ask them if they feeling happy, sad, angry, etc. Children often just need to be asked, and then they will open up. If a student is engaging in virtual learning, then those meetings with parents are even more important to identify a student that is struggling.
Q: What specific symptoms would warrant further action?
A: The biggest symptom to watch for is isolation. When children isolate, they are telling you that they are not comfortable with something in their environment. Isolation in the classroom can impact learning as the student will be thinking about what is causing stress and anxiety and not be listening to your math lesson. If you start to notice that a child’s assignments are less than complete or are in anyway deviant from normal functioning, then it is time to address those concerns.
Any disruptive or other externalizing behaviors are also symptoms that would warrant further action. This could be hyperactivity, aggression, etc. It is important to address these symptoms right away. Do not wait until this happens more often. Communicate to the parent that you have noticed a difference in behavior and make a plan to help the student.
Q: When does the student need mental health care?
A: Typically, mental health care is most effective when used in a more proactive way. For example, catching symptoms earlier, before there is a significant problem in any area, is best for the child. When parents and teachers are communicating, they can discuss a path to getting help.
Finally, as Christians, it is important to be in the Word and praying for a successful school year. God reminds us to be still and know that He is GOD. Nothing is out of His control and plan. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” Jesus says (John 14:27). Please remember that no matter how different our world is, God and his promises are constant. Those promises will never change.
Ashley Schoof is a Therapist with Christian Family Solutions, a provider of Christian counseling care and services. Learn more at ChristianFamilySolutions.org.
For helpful articles on preparing families for back to school visit Forward in Christ Parent Conversations.