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How to Support Your Child’s Return to in-Person Learning

Child wearing parents hand and a face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • With kids and teens navigating in-person learning after over a year of isolation, parents and teachers should take steps to support their mental health.
  • Parents should keep their children up-to-date with check-ups, help them settle into a routine, and keep watch for any unusual behavior.
  • Experts are hopeful the pandemic will help increase mental health support for kids in schools.

As school starts up again, kids and teens are gearing up for a return to in-person learning. Over the past year and a half, everyone has been forced to navigate challenges due to the pandemic.

But experts say that adolescents are especially susceptible to the pandemic's mental toll, which parents and teachers should pay extra attention to as school starts.

"The number of ways this pandemic has affected children and teens is pretty astounding," Caroline Fenkel, MSS, DSW, LCSW, a social worker based in Pennsylvania and Chief Clinical Officer of Charlie Health—a service that offers teletherapy for teens, young adults, and their families—tells Verywell via email.

Research has found the collective trauma of COVID-19 to be particularly hard on young people, Fenkel adds. It's the timing; trauma and isolation, when experienced young, can disrupt trajectories of emotional, mental, and behavioral development.

But parents and schools can take this opportunity to support students more deliberately, Megan M. Hamm, ED.S, LPC-S, a counselor and registered play therapist (RPT) based in Mississippi, tells Verywell. "[It's about] not looking at 'bad' behavior as 'acting out,' but as a chance to see if it's anxiety they're dealing with," Hamm says.

How to Support Your Child This School Year

COVID-19 vaccines and mask-wearing are currently dominating the national back-to-school conversation. While they are the most effective ways to stave off serious illness and death due to the virus, there are additional steps you can take to support your children this school year.

Physical Health

Experts say that during the pandemic, many kids didn't attend their annual check-ups. Orders for childhood vaccines dropped by 14% in 2020-2021 compared to 2019, while orders for the measles vaccine are down by more than 20%.

"We want to make sure we're not dealing with a new problem on top of COVID-19," Priya Soni, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in California, said in a press release about helping children return to the classroom.

You can make sure your child/teen is up to date on their shots by checking in with their pediatrician. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offers a vaccination schedule by age.

Mental Health

This school year may also be particularly challenging for your children emotionally.

Remember, Fenkel says, kids and teens have faced trauma in the past year and a half. A few examples include:

  • Loss of a job in the family
  • Devastation of death and illness
  • Stress of ongoing global uncertainty
  • Loneliness of social isolation
  • Sadness and anxiety in missing school
  • Physical and mental health consequences of having limited access to public health resources like guidance counselors and meals at school

Many of these events can be considered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which research finds can cause long-term physical and mental health issues. Specifically, studies have found that people who report four or more ACEs are at increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as mental illness.

Parents and teachers have faced trauma and hardship during the pandemic, too. This, however, can exacerbate a child's situation.

When our authority figures and elders exhibit more stress and worry than usual, Fenkel says, it can upset the balance in the relationship and sense of reality. "The parent’s or caregiver’s stress becomes the young person’s, which only heightens tension and fear," Fenkel says.

To alleviate this tension, parents can help kids and teens find normalcy through a routine. For example, parents can help younger kids put out their clothing the night before class and pack lunch bags ahead of time to help them feel prepared.

You can also work on starting proactive conversations about mental health with your child, instead of waiting for red flags.

"This is a needed conversation that is not being had," Hamm says. "It's like we throw the kids out there and say, 'Here, deal with this life change. If you don't say anything about it, we're going to assume you're adjusted." But what if the teachers and parents broach the subject first?

Watch Out for Bullying

If you're living in an area where masks and vaccines are particularly controversial, it may be helpful to keep an eye out for bullying.

For example, Hamm is based in Mississippi—an under-vaccinated state whose governor called the CDC’s mask guidance "foolish and harmful."

In Mississippi, there is no state-wide mask mandate, despite calls for it from the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Mississippi State Medical Association, and the Mississippi Association of Educators. Instead, that's left up to school districts.

This list shows which states have school mask mandates and which have banned them.

And Hamm's district? They decided against it. Now she's seeing the consequences play out in bullying, just a few weeks after school started. "For some of the kids who are choosing to wear a mask, it's becoming another reason to bully [them]," Hamm says.

Hamm adds younger kids might make fun of children who wear masks because they're scared, don't believe that they'll get really sick, or are just repeating what their parents told them. This can lead to an enormous sense of peer pressure.

Regardless of their bullying situation, Hamm says, she always encourages kids to find someone they feel comfortable talking to, be it a friend, teacher, or counselor. This makes it so someone immediately in the vicinity can support them through whatever struggles they're going through.

What This Means For You

If you or your child is struggling right now, seek mental health support. It's OK to be struggling. Talking to a mental health professional can help, be it virtually or in person.

A Stepping Stone for Structural Change

Schools and teachers need to be prepared for both the learning and the behavioral backslide a lot of kids have made, Fenkel says.

"Maintaining a sense of grace and patience is vital: remember, this pandemic has been harder on kids than most," Fenkel says. "Their frustration, lack of engagement, depression, anxiety...you name it...isn’t their fault."

Logically, teachers and parents know this: The pandemic and students' reactions to it aren't their faults. But it might be difficult to remember that in a moment of acting out.

To prepare for those moments, Hamm says, replace frustration and disciplinary action with curiosity.

"[Teachers and administrative staff] need to be able to recognize symptoms of a child who's dealing with anxiety," she says. So instead of threatening to expel a student for their behavior, or sending them to the principal, try referring them to a school or child counselor first.

"It's about being curious about where it's coming from, instead of saying 'Alright, you're going to the principal," Hamm says. "Once you get to the principal, the curiosity has gone out the window."

Signs of Anxiety in Young Children

Hamm shares a few common signs of anxiety in young children. If any of these behaviors are new in the child, or change in frequency, it might be worth a conversation and/or trip to a counselor:

  • Failing grades
  • No longer enjoying going to school
  • Trouble sleeping/doesn't want to go to sleep
  • Not interested in eating lunch/snack at school
  • Staying to themselves at recess
  • Being mean to other students/not getting along with peers
  • Saying that nothing is good enough/not being satisfied with anything

Funding for Mental Health in Schools

Fenkel and Hamm also emphasize that schools need better funding for mental health resources.

While it's possible and necessary that teachers, administrators, and parents pay attention to students’ moods, behaviors, and actions, Fenkel says, "so many schools and communities are impossibly underfunded when it comes to more structural resources."

Hamm echoes the sentiment. "I know they have a lot of responsibilities," she says, meaning everyone—teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents. But emotional awareness and learning can start small.

"[It's about] normalizing feeling anxious. Having the conversation to say, 'Hey, this is how I feel. It's OK to feel this way,'" she says, and following through by modeling different coping skills.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Vaccination Toolkit for Clinicians. Updated July 26, 2021.

  2. Boullier, M., & Blair, M. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences. Paediatrics and Child Health28(3), 132–137. doi:10.1016/j.paed.2017.12.008