How to Prepare Students Socially and Emotionally for a Return to School

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In March 2020, the last day he was in classes in his school building, Anton Miller (a pseudonym) was a shy, hesitant child who had finally gotten used to the rhythm of his kindergarten classroom and the gaggle of loud kids in it.

At the end of August, he’ll go back to the same building to start grade 2. He hasn’t mastered reading yet, and his grandmother, who looks after him, is worried that he’s lost all the progress he’s made.

But Anton has also lost family members and neighbors to COVID-19. “He is afraid of the coronavirus,” his grandmother said. “He knows what it can do–he’s seen it.”

After more than a year of being told to stay inside and to keep away from other kids, she’s worried about how anxious he’ll be going back into a building with hundreds of people in it, and how easily he’ll be able to socialize. She’s worried he’ll be singled out by other kids because of his anxiety and grief.

“He’s going to stand on the side of the playground, and watch, that’s what I’m thinking,” she said, stroking his hair. “I just don’t know how he’s going to be.”

On April 8, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said she expected the District’s public schools to reopen for a full-time return to in-person learning at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. But students have experienced a year-and-a-half of uncertainty and anxiety at best and upheaval and loss at worst. What can families –and schools—do to prepare them for this return to a new normal?

A Range of Experiences

About 60 percent of District students have not had in-person instruction since schools closed in March 2020. In the meantime, they have had a wide range of experiences.

Some students may feel separation anxiety at the prospect of spending an entire school day away from their families. Some virtual learners who only had a few daily hours of classes will need to adjust to the sustained attention required for a full day of lessons, let alone the interaction with teachers and peers as they get familiar with the layout of their school. Those predisposed to anxiety or with diagnosed disorders might have bigger worries about the return to school.

Still others are dealing with matters that reach beyond school into the home. Black and brown students and those from historically under-resourced communities have been disproportionately affected by the disease, which exacerbated pre-existing disparities. Many students were isolated from peers, confined to the household at the same time as many families experienced a loss of earnings. These factors increased household stress that in many cases compromised parenting.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Guidance for Safe Schools, these feelings can have a significant impact on a child’s development, academic learning, psychosocial functioning, emotional adjustment and behavior.

School as a Safe Place

For some of these students, school can be a resource to cope with these feelings. Schools and school-supported programs are fundamental to child and adolescent development, notes AAP guidance, providing children and adolescents with social and emotional skills, safety, and food in addition to access to therapy, mental health and medical services.

Dr. Janine Domingues, Clinical Psychologist with New York nonprofit The Child Mind Institute, said there is going to be a high need for schools to think through their social emotional support for these high-risk students. Courtesy: Child Mind Institute]

Dr. Janine Domingues, a Clinical Psychologist with New York nonprofit The Child Mind Institute, said that the pandemic has created an opportunity for school systems to change the educational environment to promote mental health and well-being the same way as physical education and health are generally valued.

Making a safe space to help students deal with this diversity of experiences is a big ask, Dr. Domingues said. That’s even harder to implement when staff and teachers are also feeling pressure to make up learning loss. That loss is real: a December 2020 study by EMpowerDC found that students had already lost nearly a half year of learning; those numbers are higher for at-risk students, increasing the achievement gap.

But the AAP also calls for schools to prioritize social emotional support over the recovery of learning. “It is important that school personnel do not anticipate or attempt to catch up for lost academic time through accelerating curriculum delivery at a time when students and educators may find it difficult to even return to baseline rates,” reads the AAP guidance. In part, that is because the association recognizes that a desperate game of catch up will only add to the anxieties of staff and students.

Acknowledging Grief

When space is provided in the daily schedule and in the classroom to acknowledge feelings of anxiety or loss, it can help de-stigmatize those emotions.

That’s good, said Shannon Collier, a grief counsellor with Capital Caring Health. Feelings of loss are a normal and natural part of life. The nonprofit provides care and support to those facing life-limiting illness and provides free grief counselling to those dealing with the loss of loved ones to COVID-19.

Collier emphasizes that many children may feel embarrassed or isolated by grief. “Since our society minimizes grief, grief can and does sometimes still hold a stigma,” she said. “It’s important that children are not singled out for those feelings or experiences.”

Grief impacts everyone differently, Collier said; just as with adults, children are people with varied emotional responses to their pandemic experience.

Kids need space to express their feelings. They will cycle through sharing their feelings verbally, asking questions, expressing themselves through their bodies rather than their words and exerting control over their experiences through play.

Communication

What’s key is communicating with your student and with the school staff, said Dr. Domingues. Caregivers can discuss concerns with school staff before classes begin and advocate for their student’s needs throughout. “I think being in touch and trying to have a plan or at least flagging that for the school can be helpful as you’re starting this dialogue about your child’s anxiety,” said Dr. Domingues.

Parents should also speak with their child, working to create an open and ongoing discussion with their kids. Discuss feelings and concerns with students prior to and throughout the school year, where possible making plans to help with those concerns, Dr. Domingues suggested. Reassure them that measures are in place for their safety, and that these have been proven to work, she said. Older kids can understand that “sometimes, we have to take small risks to do important things.”

Miller’s grandmother knows he feels a bit afraid of the upcoming year; she can see it in his face when they talk about it.

She has reached out to his school and is expecting to speak with his grade 1 teacher as soon as he is placed in a classroom. They have already discussed connecting him with a school counsellor, and even forming a small group of kids with similar experiences.

Dr. Domingues said while schools and mental health professionals are preparing for challenges at the beginning of the new school year, there is reason to be positive about the move towards a new normal. She says she has seen resilience in both the students and staff she works with.

“I really do feel like we’re going to be ok, we’re going to get through it,” she said, “and to keep holding to that line of hope is important.”

Learn more about Capital Caring Health and grief support services by visiting www.capitalcaring.org or by calling their 24-hour care line at 1-844-4-GRIEVE (1-844-447-4383). Find resources to support children’s mental health from the Child Mind Institute by visiting childmind.org.

Knowing that kids may have anxiety or fears about going to school, The Child Mind Institute has formulated suggestions for ways to alleviate those feelings

  • Validate their Feelings. Stay calm and positive and validate feelings of anxiety or fear: “I’ll miss you too, and I’m proud of you for going back to school.”
  • Set the Tone. Avoid leading questions, i.e., “Are you feeling nervous?” which inadvertently indicate there is something to worry about.
  • Help kids think about positive aspects of going to school. What are they most looking forward to? What did they enjoy in previous years?
  • Give them a transitional object: Very young children with separation issues can benefit from a “transitional object,” or anything that helps a child feel connected to a caregiver while apart –a button from your shirt, a rock you found together.
  • Have open and ongoing discussions with kids. Discuss feelings and concerns with students prior to and throughout the school year, where possible making plans to help with those concerns.
  • Establish a predictable routine early on. Many families will change their daily routines this fall, not only with kids going to school, but parents going into the office. Dr. Domingues says that where possible the entire family should start practicing before the first day of school, setting expectations about when to wake, what they need to do and where they will go.
  • Ease students into socializing. If possible, parents should integrate their child into small group interactions in the summer, ideally an organized group activity that requires them to follow adult guidance and integrate with peers. “It might not be a whole school, but at the very least they start getting used to feeling that anxiety and getting through it and knowing that they’re going to be OK,” Dr. Domingues said.
  • Flag concerns for school staff at the start of the school year, and advocate for your student’s needs throughout.