Home Health Tips Here's how kids can cope with back-to-school stress as 'normal' learning resumes in NJ – NorthJersey.com

Here's how kids can cope with back-to-school stress as 'normal' learning resumes in NJ – NorthJersey.com

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How to protect children from COVID-19 as they return to school

Dr. Helen Kest with St. Joseph’s Children Hospital on how to protect kids, especially those who are too young to get vaccinated, against COVID-19,

Anne-Marie Caruso, NorthJersey.com

Fall was supposed to be the “return to normal” for kids. 

Schools in New Jersey and around the nation are planning to resume full-time, in-person instruction. That was already likely to be a rocky transition for some after a year-plus of virtual and hybrid learning, social isolation and too much screen time. 

Now, it looks like students will be back in class with the pandemic far from over, as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, even if vaccinations provide good protection for most people. Gov. Phil Murphy reinstated a mask mandate for schools earlier this month. He’s insisted he won’t backtrack on in-person learning, but some parents are demanding that option too.  

Background: Gov. Murphy announces NJ school mask mandate. Here’s what you need to know

The stress isn’t going away. But there are ways parents and educators can help kids cope with mental health concerns in Year Two of COVID. The Record and NorthJersey.com compiled a list of signs to look out for and steps to take as classes and campuses reopen.

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, mental health experts said, and they expect the coming school year to be fraught with both. 

“Is the variant a real threat? Is it going to shut things down? Are we wearing masks or not? Are we going to school or are we not? These are all things that are up in the air,” said Caroline Fenkel, chief clinical officer of Charlie Health, which provides virtual mental health clinics. 

COVID: We asked 147 North Jersey schools about their COVID protocols for fall. Here’s what they said

Mental-health warning signs

“Primarily, two things stand out: the academic challenges and the social challenges,” said psychiatrist Sarabjit Singh, executive medical director of behavioral health services at three local hospitals: St. Clare’s in Morris County, St. Mary’s in Passaic and St. Michael’s in Newark. “Kids have been out of school way too long and research is very clear: Irrespective of the reason, the longer a child stays out of school the harder reintegration becomes.” 

So what should parents and teachers look for?

1. “Focus on anything that’s different in a child’s behavior, something that stands out and is a major change,” said Fenkel. “Overnight your child who was a good sleeper suddenly talking about not being able to fall asleep; if they tend to be good eaters and they become picky eaters. We are looking for things like excessive worrying and pointing out negative things.”

2. Younger children tend to project feelings onto others or have physical symptoms, like stomach aches, headaches and nausea. Anxiety can look different during various developmental stages, experts caution.

“When you have a toddler or a child saying, ‘Oh no, look at that. Is the doggie OK? He looks hurt,’ focusing more on negative things might be an indicator that something is going on,” said Fenkel. 

3. With older children, focus on what they’re trying to communicate. Is it more positive or negative? Being agitated or restlessness could be another sign.  Are they having trouble settling into a movie or TV show? Are they giving short responses or withdrawing from friends and family? Are there hygiene issues? 

“Most importantly you will start to see a loss in interest in things they enjoyed in the past,” Singh said. 

“A lot of kids are going to have a lot of anxiety,” said Fenkel. “Most kids are socially anxious as it is because they are building their own identity.”

4. A surge of “school refusal” is likely, in which stress levels overwhelm children to the point where they become incapacitated, said Fenkel. 

“It is basically a kid that just says, ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore,’ and no matter what the parent says they can’t get them to go.”

5. Academic difficulties or worries over social standing are typical triggers in normal times, but parents can expect anxiety to be amped up as the pandemic lingers. 

“Usually it is, I don’t want to face my friends. I’m too nervous to see people. I feel like I don’t dress well enough. I’m not funny enough. I am not skinny enough,” Fenkel said. “I have seen a lot of kids with that and I’m expecting to see more.”

In these cases professionals are needed to walk children through their fears, she said. 

How can parents help?

6. Structure and routine are paramount. 

“The more routine-oriented the child’s day is the better the outcome is going to be,” Singh said. “Be very clear. When they come home from school there is a snack time and a homework time and play time.” 

Ten days before school starts make sure children are going to sleep and waking up on time. 

Parents, counselors, school administrators and teachers should aim to provide moments of consistency. Have family dinners at the same time each night as much as possible. That will be comforting. Have a set time for waking up and going to sleep. 

“Make sure the rules and boundaries that are set in a household stay firm. Set up consistency around them and that will help them cope with inconsistencies happening in the world,” said Singh.  

7. When they come home, ask how the day at school went and then allow them time to vent about it. 

“Talk about how it might be really hard, but that’s OK and listen to that,” said Fenkel. 

8. Help students recognize what makes them happy, whether that’s hanging out with the family pet, taking a walk or listening to music? 

9. Fenkel recommends a breathing technique for when things get stressful called “4-7-8.”  The instructions are in the name: Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven, and then breathe out for eight.

“It’s a way to slow down your breathing and get your heart rate to slow down,” she said.

10. Guidance counselors can help ease the back-to-school transition or modify schoolwork if things aren’t going well. Remember: everyone is behind and educators are expecting students to need help, said Singh. 

“If you think there is a big problem go to your primary care doctor. They have a multitude of assessments they can do in their office.”. 

11. Model the right behavior at home. 

“It’s really important that parents model healthy coping skills,” Fenkel said. “Instead of saying, ‘I am so stressed. I need a glass of wine,’” they should say, ‘I am so stressed I’m going to take a walk. Do you want to come with me?’”

Coronavirus concerns 

12. Local school districts said they’re prepared with counseling services and other programs to help students readjust to full-time, in-person learning. 

Montville Township’s Superintendent Rene Rovtar said via email that the district has a number of offerings in place across all grade levels, including a Skill Building Summer Camp and Lifelines programs focused on suicide prevention.

Denville Township schools will provide in-person counseling and be on the look out for kids struggling with mental health concerns, added Superintendent Steven Forte.

13. Parents and guardians should let children know that serious bouts of COVID are highly unlikely for young children, or older ones who get vaccinated, said Dr. Robert Lahita, a professor at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Nutley. 

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve a vaccine for use on children under the age of 12.

But even below that age, “when they get the coronavirus, as a rule nothing happens,” said Lahita, who also directs the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Diseases at Saint Joseph’s Health .Lahita said. “They may have the sniffles. They may have a slight fever. But most of the time, nobody even notices.” 

A small number have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome after COVID infections, a potentially fatal syndrome that almost always requires hospital care and has affected 130 children in New Jersey.  But it’s “very rare and very treatable,” Lahita said.

“If they are vaccinated they are going to be protected. For the most part any child under the age of 18 or 19 is not going to be affected adversely, said Lahita. 

14. All of this is a lot to take in, so remember to also keep the big picture in mind, Singh said. 

“In general we are safe. We are in a much better place than we were since the pandemic started. That reassurance needs to be given. Take pride in the fact that in the end the human spirit prevailed and science prevailed. We are in a much better spot,” he said.

Gene Myers is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: myers@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @myersgene  

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