Reassure children as school year starts, advocate says

Aug 26, 2021

With a new school year about to start, children may feel stressed, anxious, excited or hopeful, Dartmouh Youth Advocate Deloris Joseph reassured parents during a Zoom presentation Thursday.

 Sometimes, she said, they can experience all of these feelings at various times as emotions come in “waves,’’ she said — and that’s all right.

“Whatever your child is feeling is okay,’’ she added.

“These are uncharted waters for all of us,’’ she told those watching her discussion titled Back to School: Dealing with Our New Normal. 

The program, sponsored by Friends of the Dartmouth Libraries, looked at how to talk about returning to school, ways to identify feelings of anxiety and stress and how to address those feelings. 

Listening to children’s concerns, taking them seriously and offering calm reassurance are crucial, she said.

Children could wonder, for example, why, if everything is okay, they are being asked to wear masks or frequently wash hands, Joseph said. 

This is where offering assurance and explanations can make all the difference.

“Reassure them that people are looking out for their best interests,’’ she said, which is why those measures have been put in place. 

Children are sensitive to emotions, Joseph said, so she encouraged parents to “stay as calm as possible’’ during these conversations.

“Children pick up on things,” she said. If parents are pacing, or speaking in a tense voice, children may think “she’s telling me that when I go back, everything’s going to be okay, but her body language says otherwise.”

“Our job as parents is to set the tone’’ and maintain open conversations, she said. 

Parents should also validate any and all emotions a child may be experiencing.

If children express anxiety, validate their emotions by saying that you understand how they are feeling, then offer practical reassurance. 

“Whatever the feeling is, say ‘okay, I hear you,’’’ Joseph said. “Let’s talk about why you feel this way and what we can do.’’

One possible response would be to remind the child that you understand their feelings, but that you have looked up what the schools are doing and realize it’s for their well-being, for example.

“Always be reassuring your kids,’’ Joseph said.

Reminding them that changes could happen is important. 

The youth advocate encouraged parents to tell their kids things may change, referring to possible school closures to clean classrooms for example, or needing to quarantine. But any change, children need to know, is because “we want to keep you safe.’’ 

 With the start of school days away, she advised parents to set routines now. 

Summer schedules can be looser than during the school year, she said, but preparing for a new routine ahead of time can ease the transition.

 One example would be to set earlier bedtimes and wake-ups to more closely mirror the school schedule.

 Separation anxiety can also be an issue.

Joseph suggested taking steps within the home to make children more comfortable with separation from parents. 

For example, if a parent is cooking supper, he or she could suggest the child spend a half hour in his or her room to create some separation.

 Creating a connection with a child’s teacher can help families and educators brainstorm for possible solutions to anxiety issues, she said.

 An example Joseph offered is having the parent ask the teacher to discreetly hand the child a rubber ball to squeeze when he or she feels anxious.

 “You’d be amazed at how open teachers are to help you and help your child,’’ she said.

 Nerves are normal during the transition to a new school year, she said. But she encouraged parents to keep one thing in mind. 

 “The kids are going to be alright,’’ she said. “Just remember, your kids are extremely resilient.’’