Parent checklist to emotionally prepare kids for unique back-to-school

BOSTON — Boston 25 News is devoting a series of stories to examining a crisis in youth mental health, Boston 25 Gets Real about Kids and Mental Health. Across Massachusetts, that crisis is playing out in homes, schools, and hospitals.

We are kicking off a series of stories that will take a comprehensive look at children and their emotional well-being.

We start with the return to the classroom.

This month, many kids are heading into schools for the first time in more than a year. Anchor and Investigative Reporter Kerry Kavanaugh spoke with a local child psychologist who shares a checklist for parents and guardians to make sure kids are emotionally prepared for this big step.

Mixed emotions about back-to-school

At a recent back-to-school event in Dorchester, we met kids like Jordan Adamson who were so excited to grab some new ‘back-to-school’ gear. Jordan gushed over everything single thing in that new backpack. But, even with the thrill of new supplies, the 9-year-old Brookline student had some mixed emotions about his full-time return to the classroom.

“I am like kind of worried that we’re going to have to wear a mask again, that we’re going to be remote,” Jordan said. “But I am excited to see my friends.”

Jordan’s not the only one feeling a little anxious, just ask Dariel Holden of Jamaica Plain.

“Well mostly I’m scared about people,” Dariel said, because there’s going to be lots of “new faces.”

From new faces to faces that kids haven’t seen in a while, to changes in schedule and learning without a screen in front of them, kids want to be back in school. And many parents, doctors and educators believe in the classroom is where kids need to be. But the transition this year is just different.

“Back-to-school 2021 is different this year because it’s not what we expected it would be,” said Dr. Fatima Watt, director of behavioral health services at Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Brighton. “I think there was so much hope riding on this school year. We were going to be back, people were going to be vaccinated, masks were going to be gone and it was going to be regular.”

Watt says the grief and worry is real about return to the classroom is very real.

“I think in a year of the continuing COVID pandemic, it’s going to be really important that we are mentally preparing our kids.”

Parent Checklist for how to check-in

Watt, a child psychologist, says that starts with conversations.

“I started having conversations with my kids. They’re young so we pulled out a calendar we drew on the calendar how many days there are until school. We are talking about feelings and how we think and feel about school. We talked about coronavirus still being here and what that means.”

And with COVID-protocols still in place, share the rules kids should expect. Watt suggest role playing scenarios like how to ask for a mask break and social distancing.

But, Watt says don’t cause panic. Emotions are contagious. Share coping strategies instead.

“I think it’s important parents are sharing how they’re coping and how they’re doing to a degree,” Watt said. “I think it’s very important that we are not scaring our children by saying ‘Oh my goodness, mommy is so stressed out and we have no idea how we’re going to make it through this.’”

Instill a sense of confidence, by giving as much useful information you have, to help them feel prepared.

“I can do this. I can learn. I can make friends. I can be successful,” Watt said.

Once in school, be on the lookout for changes in your child’s behavior.

“If they’re not making friends, if they’re having big changes in eating or sleeping, if they’re withdrawing and not participating in activities that they usually enjoy, if they’re not taking opportunities to socialize with peers. That is one thing that would concern me as a clinician,” Watt said.

Especially, Watt said, if they’re not settling in after the first month back.

Watt added for the sake of their own stress, parents should focus on what they can control, like what’s happening in your home and your kid’s ‘back to school’ readiness. And if parents have questions, she says they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out the school.

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