Going Back to School in Uncertain Times

Starting a new school year in the midst of a worldwide pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty for kids and parents.

“It’s not surprising that so many families are feeling stressed as the school year approaches,” said Jonathan Ponser, LCPC, NCC, manager of child and family therapy at Memorial Behavioral Health. “No one is really sure what the next few months will bring, and uncertainty can create a lot of anxiety.”

A study conducted in June by two large children’s hospitals revealed that 27 percent of parents across the U.S. say that their mental health has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 14 percent of parents reported seeing worrisome behavioral changes in their children.

Many kids have spent the past six months in an environment of instability, Ponser said—first as they adapted to at-home learning and then as they experienced a summer filled with extra safety measures. Now, some are returning to a school environment that may look very different from what they’re used to. Others will be getting used to new schedules that combine online and in-person learning.

One tool that may help is mindfulness. “Mindfulness techniques are used to help kids recognize and acknowledge what they’re feeling, which can help them improve their ability to understand their emotions,” Ponser said. This may include breathing exercises or meditation. Guided videos on mindfulness techniques for kids are available on YouTube.

It’s also helpful to prepare children to return to school by establishing a structured schedule. This may mean maintaining a sleep schedule with consistent wake-ups and bedtimes. “Instead of having a different sleep schedule for virtual and in-person learning days, try to keep those times consistent,” Ponser said. “This will help reinforce that virtual learning days are just as important as in-person ones.”

If your school district has scheduled in-person days and your children aren’t used to wearing masks, practice at home for increasing periods of time. Take time to explain why masks are important. Older kids and teens will feel more ownership of mask-wearing and hygiene practices like handwashing if they understand the reasons behind them.

It’s also important that children and teens feel comfortable talking about their feelings and fears. “Encourage your kids to talk about what’s bothering them,” Ponser said. “Start meaningful conversations and try to create an environment where they feel comfortable opening up about their emotions.”

Some families may benefit from additional help and support. Memorial Behavioral Health offers individualized therapeutic services for children and adolescents in Springfield, Jacksonville and Lincoln. Visit MemorialBehavioralHealth.org for more information on these services.

“Our team focuses on assessment, treatment and recovery for school-age kids and teens,” Ponser said.

Memorial Behavioral Health also offers a free emotional support hotline at 217-588-5509. The hotline is open to any adult experiencing anxiety or stress, even if they are not MBH patients, and is available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“The hotline is a great resource for parents who are feeling overwhelmed by all the stressors in our lives right now,” Ponser said. “Sometimes, talking honestly with someone about your situation and hearing words of reassurance can make a huge difference.”

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