Managing back-to-school stress

This fall, kids might experience increased stress due to COVID-19.
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Illustration by James Heimer

In the first half of 2020, about 1.5 billion students across the globe experienced an abrupt disruption of their education due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students who were unable to finish their normal school year were under unprecedented stress as parents and educators struggled to implement remote learning, which was further complicated by inconsistency in schedules at home, undefined rules and consequences, and unclear academic and behavioral expectations.

Online schooling was hard, especially for children in poverty, for students with poorly resourced schools or without electronic devices and for those kids whose parents were under considerable pressures of their own. In addition, social isolation required by the pandemic caused children and adolescents to miss out on critical connections with extended family, peers and educators.

Lindsey Farlow, LLMSW, BRAINS therapist Courtesy BRAINS

Lindsey Farlow, LLMSW, is a therapist at BRAINS, an accredited practice in Grand Rapids whose mission is to maximize the potential of families through understanding the complex relationship between the brain, body and real life. During the period of home schooling and social distancing, Farlow noted “the majority of kids (elementary and up) express[ed] missing their friends and family members,” which in turn may have increased a sense of boredom, contributed to frustrations during learning, led to extraordinary amounts of screen time and influenced regression of behaviors.

It is uncertain how many of these unique stressors may remain for students as they approach the new school year, which is often accompanied by worries about fitting in, being liked and navigating change. Farlow said the response to stress that children and adolescents express “depends on how the caregivers are responding to the stressor.”

Parents need to be mindful of their own anxiety as their kids prepare for the new school year, and Farlow encourages “families to have open age-appropriate conversations with their children, in addition to checking in occasionally on how they are feeling and reassure them how to keep safe” as they navigate through new school routines.

“I think it will be an adjustment for sure with regards to new safety precautions; however, kids are resilient and can adapt to changes with the proper guidance,” said Farlow. “Prepare and practice are good ways to approach change. Some things you can implement (are) how to social distance, alternatives to shaking hands or hugs and routinely washing hands.”

Whether educated at school or at home, students of all ages experience less stress and anxiety if they maintain consistent routines, practice healthy habits, take regular breaks from media and find ways to stay connected through social networks. “It is important to try to keep a routine that includes learning opportunities, relaxation time and physical or outdoor activities to meet the basic needs,” said Farlow.

Regardless of the site of education, it is important for children and adolescents to continue relationships with their educators, as research suggests that having a positive relationship with a teacher is just as important as academic skills when it comes to school engagement.

How to recognize stress and anxiety in your student

• Younger students may not always be able to translate their worries into words, so it can come out in their behavior: trouble sleeping
or nightmares, more tantrums, regression of skills (such as a return to wetting the bed or picky eating habits) and/or increased “clinginess.”
• Stress also may manifest as new physical symptoms in children of all ages, especially complaints of headaches, stomachaches and body aches.
• Some students may show an extreme reluctance to change routines and/or a disinterest in new activities; adolescents can spiral into clinical depression.
• Teens may respond by engaging in increasingly risky behaviors. Be alert for new concerns in adolescents who didn’t previously have an issue.

Where to find help

Luckily, in West Michigan, there are a number of resources that can offer help if students are showing signs of stress and anxiety as they begin the new school year. Pediatricians can assess both physical and mental symptoms and refer for counseling, whether in school or as an outpatient; these services can even be provided virtually via telehealth in some cases.

BRAINS has psychologists and therapists like Farlow who provide specialized services in addition to finding solutions for life challenges and connecting families with eligible community resources.

Online, the “Stay Home, Stay Mindful” website has a special collection of meditation, sleep and movement exercises to help Michiganders (kids included) maintain a strong and healthy mind, while Michigan Cares is a program that offers free digital lessons focused on developing social, emotional and mental well-being skills.

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