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By Mayo Clinic Health System staff
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much stress and uncertainty for students, parents, teachers and staff.
"With so many changes in our interactions and routines over the last four months, it's natural that parents and children want their lives to return to 'normal,'" says Sarah Scherger, M.D., a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, Minnesota. "This desire is especially strong when considering school this fall. School is important for not only for a child's academic success, it serves an important role in social and emotional health as well."
Whether classes meet in person or online, or use a hybrid approach, one thing is certain: Mental health is a vital part of the equation, Dr. Scherger says.
To work on a healthy mindset for this school year, it may help to actively focus on these 4 Be's:
- Be flexible.
Stay open to the possibility that the format of schooling might change over the course of the year.
- Be optimistic.
Maintain a positive attitude about learning new ways to learn.
- Be supportive.
Contribute to keeping the learning environment as safe as possible by practicing social distancing, masking and proper hand hygiene.
- Be kind.
Be patient with each other as everyone works toward a common goal of ending the pandemic.
As schools determine their approaches, students will need varying behavioral health support based on their age and the class format, says Dr. Scherger.
For in-person schooling
Elementary school students may not fully understand why all the health and safety practices are happening.
"It's important that parents model safe practices, such as handwashing and wearing a mask," says Dr. Scherger. "Also, answering questions in a calm manner will provide comfort these students need as they return to school buildings."
Middle school, high school and college students may find their emotions vary between excitement and anxiety.
"Parents should acknowledge the tension that students may be feeling," says Dr. Scherger. "Let them know that it's OK to feel uneasy during these times. Accepting and affirming what they may be feeling helps them move past these emotions."
One way to challenge worry at any age is by focusing on other possible outcomes and steps to minimize exposure to risk.
"There is a lot of misinformation available online, so seek information from reliable sources, such as your local health department, your child's health care provider or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," notes Dr. Scherger.
For remote schooling
For students of all ages, schools provide structure and socialization. While it still is important to have structure if the school day is online, it is OK to have some flexibility with the schedule, especially for younger children.
Many children will adapt to a virtual learning format given their experience of growing up in a world filled with technology, but some may struggle with keeping up with homework, organizing tasks and being able to stay focused for extended periods of time.
"Set up routine communication with your child's teachers," says Dr. Scherger. "This will help identify problems early and find ways to adjust the structure or information to meet your child's individual needs."
Feelings of isolation and being disconnected from peer groups are common concerns affecting students attending school online. While virtual classes can be set up to enhance group discussions and connections, it is just as important to encourage and plan ways to socialize with friends in a safe manner outside of school-related activities, offers Dr. Scherger.
For hybrid schooling
Learning formats that stagger in-person school days or alternate start times, for example, are being proposed by some schools. Changes in daily routines can be a challenge for children and adults.
One simple but effective tip: Post a master daily schedule in a common area of the home, such as the kitchen, to keep everyone on track on a day-to-day basis. This can help provide feedback on which learning formats are working well and those that can be improved.
"Teachers and administrators need our encouragement too," says Dr. Scherger. "Take the time to thank them for their efforts to make the upcoming school year as successful and safe as possible."
For 'Mental Health 101'
For anyone feeling anxious, it's common to be irritable or feel a sense of loss or sadness. Problems with sleep, physical tension and worry can result.
Dr. Scherger offers a few basic steps to help manage mental health:
- Maintain a normal daily routine.
Aim to wake up and go to bed as close as you can to the same times each day. Stay hydrated, try to keep up with a healthy diet and focus on increasing physical activity during the day. A healthy body helps maintain a healthy mood and mindset.
- Learn new skills to manage stress.
Explore how relaxation, mindfulness or yoga can calm the mind. Several free classes and mental health apps are online. Many of these skills are portable and can be used anytime, anywhere.
- Stay connected with healthy support in your life.
While these social connections may be more virtual now, being around those you care about is important to well-being. Also, remember to disconnect from the news. Spending between 15–30 minutes one to two times a day is usually enough to keep informed but not overwhelmed.
Some people may struggle with more significant mental health difficulties. If your child is struggling, reach out to your child's primary care provider or school counselor about available local mental health resources.