How to ease anxiety — for parents and kids — about return to in-person learning

A Northern Virginia child psychiatrist reports finding more parents than kids are concerned about returning to in-person learning, and she has advice for students and guardians who may be anxious.

“What I’m seeing, a lot, is that parents have concerns about the what-ifs of school and is a full-day, in-person, learning environment really going to happen. And if it does happen, is it sustainable,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Burke, Virginia.

Patton-Smith said the children she sees professionally are excited and ready to go back to school.

“And a lot of them are prepared for the fact that it’s not absolutely certain what school is going to look like, but they’re ready to try,” Patton-Smith said. “They have been such troopers, and really have tried to make the virtual learning experience work last year, and have really embraced, at the end of last year, the hybrid experience.”

Patton-Smith has tips for parents and caregivers to help them avoid projecting anxiety onto children.

“It’s super important to look at things from your child’s lens and not your parent lens,” she said. “And so asking your child, as a parent, ‘Hey, what do you think about school restarting? Any concerns you have? What excitement do you have about it? How can I help best serve you as we’re making this transition?’ is really important … And it needs to start now.”

The phrasing and framing of questions and discussions are important.

Patton-Smith said some children are, in fact, concerned and anxious about the uncertainty of what’s ahead. But, instead of asking whether kids are feeling uncertain, ask how things are going.

“’How are you feeling about going back to school?’ Register, in their words, what they’re feeling. That is extremely important,” she said.

“And then if they are having some anxiety, and they’re able to articulate that — it sometimes depends on the age group — ask them about what types of challenges they expect to have during the school year, and talk to your kids about what they can do to make things better.”

Younger children might not be able to articulate how they’re feeling. They might say it gives them a headache or their belly starts to hurt when they think about school restarting.

Caregivers should make sure that they’re open and available for children, and spending one-on-one time with each child in your household, “even if it’s only about five to 10 minutes,” she said.

“Talk them through things and make sure that they know that you are, as a parent or caregiver, are there for them to help support them through this transition.”

Patton-Smith recommends a free online resource that approaches back-to-school concerns from a holistic perspective.

“It’s really looking at the complete child and breaking down what physical health means, what mental health means, what is social health, and most importantly, what really is equity in a school environment,” Patton-Smith said.

Get more information at Kaiser Permanente’s Planning for the Next Normal at School: Keeping students, staff, and families safe and healthy.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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