- Paula Madrid is a clinical and forensic psychologist who specialises in trauma; she’s assisted in a variety of disaster response efforts and is adjunct faculty at Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.
- Now, she writes, the big question on everyone’s mind is what to do about school reopenings.
- When it comes to helping her patients choose whether or not to send their children back for in-person learning (if that’s possible), she says that there are some important considerations to make.
- Returning in person means students will likely have smaller classes, and more personal teacher attention – but there will also likely be anxiety around stricter rules, and the thought of being sent home at a moment’s notice.
- Staying at home will probably feel more stable, but means that children won’t have the opportunity to socialise.
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When I first graduated from my doctoral degree program 19 years ago, it amused me when my friends asked me if I could read their mind. I would often say that I was a psychologist and not a psychic.
Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic: I can tell you for sure what is on the minds of most, if not all, parents of school-aged children these days.
Assuming that they even have the option and resources to manage either virtual or in person education, many parents are struggling with what to do.
Factors that have helped my patients reach a decision regarding what is best for their family have included statistics about COVID-19 prevalence within their community, the parent’s ability to work from home, the at-risk status of a family member, and the trust (or lack of it) in a particular school system – as well as the child’s and parents mental health needs.
Starting a new year is both exciting and anxiety-provoking for children, and the stress has become tenfold with the threat of COVID-19.
Once parents have made a decision about what they wish to do regarding the format of their children’s schooling for fall 2020, there are some musts.
I suggest that parents keep in mind that school serves many purposes under the larger categories of education and socialisation. Therefore we can ask questions that explore how these two will play out in either virtual or in person-education.
Regardless of the decision your family makes, prepare for the possibility that your child’s anxiety may increase – or that it may actually appear for the first time, even if they had not been demonstrating signs and symptoms of distress.
While children are the most resilient human beings, they may face challenges adapting.
Depending on their personality characteristics, and the messaging at home and or even on television, it is possible that they too have become conflicted about returning to school or remaining at home.
Reassure children about safety measures in place to keep everyone healthy, and remind them that they can also help by washing their hands with soap, using sanitizer, and coughing into their elbow. Children are always scanning their parents’ verbal and non-verbal behaviour to make sense of situations; they unconsciously absorb parents’ feelings and fears and adapt them as their own.
For this reason, the most important step that parents can take is to share their decision with their children in an age appropriate way, explaining that they believe it is the very best decision for their family. And they have to mean it.
Parents with children who are returning to school in person are likely to face many unknowns for the foreseeable future.
They will most likely have to cope with fluctuating information as principals and school officials amend regulations in order to meet their school’s needs.
As expected in a new grade, children will have to adapt to new teachers, classrooms, and classmates – all on top of potentially being required to wear a mask for part or throughout the day. Some children who are eager to see and spend time with their friends may be told that they can only have limited interactions with other children, and have to skip fun at the cafeteria and in gym class.
Parents should be prepared for the fact that the strict rules that may be in place may lead to children feeling increased anxiety at the constant reminder that something very bad could happen at any given moment.
Walking around with a mask, having strict rules around bathroom use, and levels of allowed interaction with peers will undoubtedly vary from school to school.
It is therefore possible that children who previously enjoyed attending school begin to associate school with feeling uneasy which can cause attention, concentration, and academic motivation and achievement to suffer.
My patients have been discussing their fear of receiving a call from the school nurse asking them to pick up their feverish child – or the infamous letter indicating that a child in the classroom has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Parents must also be prepared for a possible and abrupt shutdown of their school.
Children have already suffered through this before, and the lack of stability that sudden changes poses can be very distressing to some children.
Children with a history of separation anxiety, extreme dependence, selective mutism, tic disorder, and developmental issues and/or trauma are going to be particularly vulnerable as they require as much stability as possible in order to feel safe.
But there are two sides of the same coin: Older children who will be attending school in person may see the reduced number of classroom hours and return to school as a plus. Children who have been in crowded classrooms may see the opportunity to experience class with fewer students and less distractions as a welcomed change. Some children will greatly benefit from more teacher attention as classroom sizes shrink.
Similarly, children whose parents convey to them their confidence in their decision to send them back to school are also likely to internalize their parents’ conviction that it is what is best for them. Parents whose children will return to in-person learning will experience a sense of regularity they have not had for months as they regain autonomy over their schedules. Their children will greatly benefit from having less stressed out parents at home.
Children who are starting the new academic year virtually will also face (different) stressors and challenges
Resuming virtual learning may be met with apprehension if their experience was a negative one upon finishing the last academic year. They may also find it difficult to connect to lessons punctually, may encounter technical problems, or have trouble remaining focused throughout the day. And children could fail to connect emotionally with their teachers if the set up does not provide a chance for one on one interactions.
Children who did not have a chance to socialise with their peers during the summer break, as well as those who are more timid, may also find it particularly trying to bond with new peers. Virtual learning has the potential of exposing children to bullying in a way that may be new to them. Have a preemptive conversation with your children about this; let them know that it is never OK, and that is your job and their teacher’s job is to help and protect them.
I expect, however, that many children will experience the benefits of remaining at home for the fall semester while their families and communities figure out the best approach moving forward.
Nothing matters more to parents than their children’s safety and wellbeing, and virtual learning will provide parents a sense of relief knowing that their children will not be in an environment that may pose a danger.
Parents whose children will attend school online will, without a doubt, provide a much needed sense of safety and stability to their children. The time spent at home may also provide children with the emotional freedom and mental capacity to develop additional skills. It is also possible that they may have more time for hobbies, or to play with siblings and neighbours, and bond with their parents – all of which are invaluable to cognitive and emotional development.
Children who have less stressors are more likely to learn and thrive, and during these times of inevitable strain children who learn virtually may be spared additional tensions.
It’s also important that parents internalize that, while not the same at all, learning can happen anywhere – at school and at home. Regardless of the method of learning your family has chosen, check in with children regularly to find out what their experience feels like.
Their feelings may fluctuate, and they may experience uncertainty. Above all else, it is important to let them know that all feelings are OK.
Jolie Breeden, a consulting editor at Paula Madrid and Associates and the lead editor and science communicator at the Natural Hazards Centre at the University of Colorado Boulder, contributed to this article.