Back to School Post-Pandemic: Let’s Talk Mental Health
After navigating an unusual school year, children returning to a full-time, in-person school setting may face some emotional and mental challenges. For parents, helping children navigate these feelings is important to their overall wellbeing and success in the classroom. Bayhealth Pediatrician Colleen Allorto, DO, offers tips for helping children adapt seamlessly and addressing the nervousness and stress that students will face.
"Everyone's routines look different from how they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sleep cycles are off, commutes are returning, mealtimes may shift, and more," said Dr. Allorto. "This transition back to school won't be easy, but it hopefully will mark the beginning of communal healing for kids and families everywhere."
As a seasoned mom and pediatrician, Dr. Allorto has more than 20 years’ experience in pediatric and adolescent medicine. She has a special interest in mental health and helping children and teens and their families successfully navigate common conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, anxiety and depression.
"As a mother of two, I have always tried to transition my children with structure and routine a few weeks prior to returning to school. It has saved lots of tears and rough mornings over the years," said Dr. Allorto.
Here are some of Dr. Allorto's top tips to help parents navigate their child's mental health as they transition back to school post-pandemic:
- Establish a bedtime routine: Two weeks before returning to school, begin a structured bedtime routine. Quality sleep is one of the most important factors in students' mental success.
- A balanced diet: Throughout the summer many parents turn to quick meals and snacks for children which oftentimes aren't the healthiest. Cut out summer junk food and get the healthier options back in their diet, including lots of water!
- Create a schedule daily program: Mentally prepare your child for the upcoming school year by having some sort of schedule starting the last few weeks of summer break. Even if the schedule is relaxed, such as starting their day at the same time, eating breakfast, playing, doing chores, or participating in learning activities etc. If they follow a set schedule at home the routine for school will come much easier.
- Ease your children back to socializing with friends: Many families have isolated themselves and children from other families. Children have the need to socialize and those that have some anxiety will find returning to school and socializing hard. Start this summer with some playdates or an organized activity to get your child socializing regularly in person, not virtually.
- Critical conversations: Children will have to deal with the reality that they are returning to school with pandemic guidelines still in place. Talk with your child(ren) to get a feel of what their concerns are and suggest ways they can overcome them. Many children have lost loved ones and will see their friends and possibly want to talk about their loss. Being there to let them know there is support for them as they continue to grieve and return to “normal” is very important. Schools have many resources available and seeking help is important when needed.
“In general children are resilient but we cannot forget that there are many who struggle and fight through mental health issues. Encouraging them to do their best and recognizing their efforts goes a long way in teaching them they can succeed,” said Dr. Allorto. ”Even with this guidance they may need more help than a parent can offer, or some parents may not even be aware there is a problem. If your child's reactions seem off — short tempered or overreacting to small stressors — the best thing you can do is meet the reactions with compassion, calmness, and understanding instead of reacting yourself. Show them peace and love and they will learn from you.
"It takes a trained eye to sometimes pick up on the subtle signs of depression and anxiety that youth try to hide from everyone. If you think you see signs of mental health problems even if your child has denied it, seek professional help," said Dr. Allorto. "It may be one the best things you could do for them.”