For most families, the month of August means summer break is coming to a close and getting ready for the new school year. Going back to school may come with some extra anxiety this year, especially because the last two school years haven’t been standard. The impact of the pandemic on schools has made it difficult for children to manage their feelings and affected their social and emotional development.
“School is the biggest challenge for children,” says Kathryn Cullen, MD, a M Physicians Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. Dr. Cullen works with the University of Minnesota Medical School's Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department, where she is also an Associate Professor and the Division Director for Child and Adolescent Health.
“It's also an essential part of our development and our social experiences,” says Dr. Cullen. She emphasizes the importance of the social connections children develop with their peers and teachers and its impact on their ability to succeed in school.
She adds, “We want to avoid a situation where our children feel like it’s too overwhelming that they can’t go to school and stay home. Or they don’t engage in school.”
Children may need additional support as they head back to school. Simple things like creating space to talk about their feelings, listening, reflecting and validating their feelings can go a long way and are important to helping kids to have a successful school year.
When children share their worries, there is sometimes an instinct to tell children, ‘It won’t be so bad’ or ‘You’re blowing it out of proportion.’ Sometimes these kinds of responses can help, but many times they would be better off by providing a listening ear. Responding with understanding like ‘Hey, that sounds really stressful,’ and ‘We’ll get through this together,’ helps provide reassurance and support, Dr. Cullen explains.
How mental health can impact learning at school
Mental health can impact school performance in a lot of different ways. Not all stress is bad. Small amounts of stress or anxiety can help boost performance. It emphasizes what’s important to us and can help with motivation to study and do well.
However, if there’s too much stress or anxiety, it can go the opposite direction. “If we go over that hump where it's overly stressful, concentrating becomes difficult, and children can get overwhelmed and feel frozen or paralyzed,” says Dr. Cullen, “It’s important to manage mental health and try to stay focused and relaxed so that they can have optimal learning.”
Some children may need to take a break from class or be supported by a plan with the teacher or counselor to help manage their anxiety. On the other hand, other children can do fine continuing in the same classroom.
Spotting mental health concerns among children and adolescents
Educators are naturally on the watch for academic performance and engagement in the classroom, but sometimes it may not be clear how to spot mental health symptoms.
Dr. Cullen notes that if a student seems less engaged than usual, that’s an early sign of a mental health concern. How a student connects with other students and whether they seem to be engaged in their work and enjoying their time in the classroom are important signs of their overall mental health.
Parents have the opportunity to see a much broader picture of their children in the home setting. Children with mental health concerns can often hold themselves together in the classroom, but at home, where it’s a safer space, they can let down their guard.
For example, Dr. Cullen says parents may be able to observe changes in their kids’ behavior, like isolating in their bedroom, not engaging with their family like they used to, being more irritable or quick to anger in their interactions, or not engaging in things they used to enjoy.
If a parent notices their child exhibiting these behavior changes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are experiencing mental health symptoms. Sometimes it’s fleeting, or maybe a specific situation triggered it, and kids can bounce right back.
Addressing mental health for young people
If they don’t bounce back, and their state of looking glum, irritable, or just not themselves seemingly lasts several weeks– that warrants more concern. Then it’s time to ask the child to talk about what they are experiencing and consider exploring the concerns with a medical or mental health provider.
“If a child is saying anything along the lines of wishing they weren’t alive or wishing they can die or making efforts to harm themselves, that’s always a more emergent concern and needs to be taken seriously and addressed,” cautions Dr. Cullen.
If your child feels anxious about returning to school, talk with your child about their feelings. Parents can serve as a model for their children by practicing talking about their own emotions. Most importantly, parents can provide a supportive environment and space for their children to express their feelings and experiences.
There are various techniques that all children can try to decrease their anxiety, too. Dr. Cullen recommends counting breaths and practicing slow regular breathing. If stress and anxiety become significant, it’s crucial to remind our children that it’s okay to tell a grown-up and ask for space to take a short break.
Dr. Cullen also recommends keeping an eye on things like eating and sleeping. Poor health habits can disrupt mental health.
“Making sure children have a regular healthy diet, they’re not skipping meals, they’re sleeping well and getting enough sleep are all important,” Dr. Cullen notes.
Technology and children’s mental health
Now in this day and age, it’s also essential to monitor the use of cell phones or engagement with technology. Although, that was a lot easier before the pandemic hit.
Still, Dr. Cullen says understanding how children use technology, how intensively and what they do is essential. Parents can intervene if it becomes concerning, for example, if engagement in social media allows them to be bullied. Parental involvement can help support your teen or child in their use of technology.
The pandemic was an extreme stressor that impacted everyone, especially children and teens. Their everyday lives were interrupted, including extracurricular activities, social relationships and academics.
“That was really hard for their development. We want to acknowledge that school can be stressful,” Dr. Cullen emphasizes, “We also want to do what we can to support them going to school and achieving it. We want to build their confidence so that they can do things that are challenging for them and so that they can succeed.”