School counselors are the understated superheroes of schools. They’re always there to lend advice, provide a shoulder to cry on, and to serve as motivators for students. Since they do give such wonderful and thoughtful advice and are fierce advocates for our children, what school counselors want parents to know this year could give you some serious relief. It doesn't matter what school looks like for your family this year, whether it's digital, in-person, or some kind of hybrid. What matters is that your children feel safe and loved and protected, according to counselors.
For kids who are doing some form of virtual learning, the most important thing to have is a routine and some sort of predictability. School psychologist Rebecca Branstetter tells Romper, “Routines and predictability are proven to be calming during times of stress. So that means the best thing to do is to provide structure to the days as much as possible. That doesn’t mean outlining a strict schedule that perfectly mirrors a school day, but more of defining a new normal for the time being.”
Frankie Lynn Clardy, a retired school counselor of 14 years says that routine can also help parents check their child’s social-emotional level. “When you establish structure, setting time and expectations, you can look for signs of shutdown or resistance.”
Some imperative red flags to look out for in your children who are distance learning include a drastic change in mood and lack of focus, according to school counselor Kelly West. “Students may feel reluctant at times to participate in virtual learning based on the loss of in-person social engagement with teachers and peers. It’s not the same, despite the ability to view faces and chat in an online learning room, however the adjustment behaviorally is one for parents to observe with their child to support during this adjustment period.”
Clardy says to also look out for any kind of behavior that isn't typical of your child, like talking back or refusing to do their work. “If you also see signs that your child has become a worry wart, having temper tantrums or unusual sleep patterns, these could also be indicators of some social-emotional problems," Clardy adds, suggesting that quarantine itself may be to blame for some of these changes, and not just digital learning.
West also says that it helps to be aware of your child's ability to focus while learning online. "A child learning at home may become easily distracted with various stimuli — TV on, loud noises , window views — so if at all possible, create a learning station/space designated for learning based on your child’s needs.”
To help combat any negative feelings, Clardy says it’s important for kids to be active and to walk outside or “do some type of movement” every single day at the same time. There’s that routine again. She adds that children need a lot of breaks when doing online learning. “Every child is traumatized in some way by this new normal. They may be traumatized because they never got to tell their teacher and their friends good bye all the way to trauma from a parent's loss of job or abusive home situation."
For kids returning to school in person, Clardy says that it’s imperative to use the school staff as a resource. “Schools are very aware of the social-emotional needs of every child in the building. Schools are planning extra training for their staff in this area, with some schools planning to have morning meetings with the students so they may discuss any social-emotional issues before the academics begin.”
She suggests that if you see a change in your child's behavior once the school year has resumed, reach out to their teacher or school counselor. "Maybe the child is not exhibiting that same behavior at school and can hold it together while at school, but loses control when they are at home. Let the school help you decide if you should be worried or not.”
West says that anxiety is a major red flag for kids who are returning to school in person. “Information regarding this pandemic has been the ongoing topic of discussion since March on all social media platforms and has changed our daily lives,” she says. So it makes sense that our kids are anxious about this, too, and might feel uneasy about being around peers and staff.
No matter how your child exhibits their nervousness, it's important to talk to them about it so they feel validated and heard. "Remember that your child is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time," Branstetter says. “The number one thing parents can do for their children right now is to ‘hold space’ for whatever they are feeling."
She says that for older children, you can ask them if they want to process or problem-solve. Processing looks like talking about their feelings and acknowledging that this is a difficult time, while problem-solving might look like collaborating on safe solutions for more connection.
For kids who aren’t necessarily into talking about their feelings, West says to “find a safe activity like walking or asking your child to help with a small task, like folding clothes, to share a bit of your feelings about working from home or any aspect about dealing with COVID." This can help them open up and realize they aren't alone in their feelings.
The most important thing for everyone right now is to always set aside time to talk as a family, Clardy says. “Ask what is going well and not-so-well. We are all in a place of uncharted territory. The more ways we can keep check on a child's social-emotional temperature, the more we can help them work through their feelings about what is going on. Do not be afraid of the tough questions,” she says. Children need to be heard and need their feelings validated. Always.
Rebecca Branstetter, school psychologist and co-founder of Make It Stick Parenting, an online course which provides parents tools to build their children’s attention, learning, and social-emotional skills
Frankie Lynn Clardy, a former elementary teacher of 25 years, and retired school counselor of 14 years
Kelly West, a professional school counselor of 10 years