Back to School

It is the most wonderful time of the year for parents; kids went back to school.  Unfortunately, this new school year may not have seemed so wonderful.  Instead of the usual calm that comes with having someone keep track of the kiddos for a few hours every day, there were increasing concerns about reports of a nearly nationwide serge of COVID-19, which was worse than all previous surges.  Despite this, there is debate about whether masks should be required in school.  Many parents fear that their children will spread the virus or even become sick.  Children are also facing challenges with this return to in person schooling.  Upon recognizing that children may be anxious because of masks, lack of social skills, and/or fear of infection, parents can help them cope to maintain their mental health.

. . . cause for concern.  Specifically, if your child is isolating him or herself, showing disinterest in activities that he or she would normally enjoy, or showing more extremes in their emotional state.

-Kristen Nardolillo, LCSW

Masks create challenges in and of themselves.  Prior to the pandemic there was a stigma that “bad guys” wore masks to hide their identity and avoid the repercussions of their anti-social actions, so seeing everyone seemingly trying to conceal their identity may have frightened some children.  While most people have become somewhat accustomed to interacting with masked people, children who have been kept at home may not have been accustomed to seeing masked people all day because wearing masks was not required at home and in the open the air environments that parents frequently allow their children to visit.  Another problem may have been that the masks cover a great deal of the facial features generally used to interpret emotions.  After a year and a half of video chats where the face is usually the only body part visible, children may have found it difficult to judge the emotional state of those they encountered at school.  Reacting to the wrong emotion could be frustrating to the person experiencing the emotion as well as the guesser.

Lack of ability to correctly determine the emotions of others leads to poor socialization skills.  After all, for the last year and a half, these children only socialized with a small group of well-known, and therefore predictable, people.  Some kids had never been in a classroom before in their lives.  Most years, this is only true for kindergarteners, but this year, many first graders experienced a classroom environment for the first time as well.  However, those two-age group were not the only ones affected.  Some social skills previously learned by all age groups may have been forgotten or become less proficient after not seeing a classroom in over a year and a half and only communicating face to face with select family members and close friends.  There were already concerns before the pandemic about the younger generations’ lack of knowledge about in person socialization skills because children and young adults gravitated toward interacting through text messages rather than physically.  Back then, school classroom situations forced children to learn the socialization skills necessary to interact face to face.  This opportunity to learn in-person socialization skills has been absent for the past year and a half.  Moreover, referring to the “New Normal” may have led some children to believe that face-to-face interaction skills may not be needed or normal in the future.  Due to all this, children may feel confused about or inadequate to deal with the return to in-person classes.

Finally, there is the very real possibility of contracting the virus, especially for children under 12 years of age who are not eligible for vaccines.  With all the theories and misinformation that have been floating around, children have a wide range of ideas about how to stay safe.  One child may have shown up at school covered from head to toe and distrusting everyone.  Another extreme would be a child who came dressed in revealing attire and hugged others, but secretly maintained constant vigilance to avoid contact with anyone displaying symptoms of illness, leaving little mental capacity to dedicate toward concentrating on class and learning.  Still others may have behaved in a similar way because they thought that nothing bad would happen to someone their age who is exposed to the virus.  Most children likely fell somewhere between these extremes.

Upon recognizing the effects of masks, lack of social skills, fear of infection, etc., parents can encourage the development of coping strategies.  Cornerstone Children’s Bereavement Counselor, Kristen Nardolillo, LCSW, recently spoke to the president of the Orlando Mom Collective and discussed that children can counteract the stresses caused by the pandemic through the practice of mindfulness, by listening for as many sounds as possible with closed eyes, walking through nature to get fresh air and decompress or even if just around the neighborhood where they live.   For older children, she recommended that parents start a “frequent open dialogue that allows the teen to feel comfortable, knowing they have a trusted adult they can share things with.”  I would add that for such a relationship to exist, children must know that they will not be punished if they admit to thinking, feeling, or doing something with which the parents disapprove.  Punishing children for what they disclose will only prevent them from being honest in the future.  The important thing is to intervene somehow if your kids or you show signs of anxiety from this unstable abnormal time.  Were you bothered by the lack of masks in the photo at the beginning of this article?  If you or your children ages 3 and up are having difficulty adapting to the reopening of schools, call Cornerstone Centers for Wellbeing at 1-866-280-WELL (9355).  We offer face to face and virtual sessions with licensed professionals.  We set aside time for new clients to offer availability as soon as the next day, or sooner.

As of last month, the ability to leave comments was added for those reading these blogs.  Please comment below with your ideas about the return of classroom education and how to help kids cope.

Live your best life, Jared W. Chantrill, LCSW

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