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Three Back-to-School Tips to Support Kids Emotionally as the Pandemic Continues

Dad helps daughter with protective mask before school
Being transparent and available for our kids emotionally can be especially helpful as they return to school during the pandemic.
The upcoming school year is unsettling for many families amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, especially on their mental health. Psychologist Roxy Pittman offers three tips for parents on how to support kids emotionally as they go back to school.
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Covid-19 has caused collective grief for many families. Although those with access to vaccines may feel a sense of relief and newfound hope, new virus variants still pose a risk to our youngest, immunocompromised and unvaccinated community members.

Some schools have made plans to move forward with in-person instruction, but based on last year, we know this can all change quickly. And since March 2020, parents are struggling with their mental health as they navigate virtual, hybrid and in-person instruction for their kids, all while trying to provide safe homes for their families and keep food on the table.

As a parent of a child entering kindergarten, the upcoming school year is unsettling for my family because there is still so much beyond my control as a caregiver. To prepare for the challenges ahead with help from an expert, I talked to Roxy Pittman, a bilingual school psychologist in California's San Francisco Bay Area, youth mental health first aid lead trainer and instructor of The Center for Cognitive Diversity's trauma-informed specialist certification program for educators.

Here are her tips on how you can support children and families as we embark on the new school year. You can also check out a few suggested books and the full resource list for caregivers at the bottom of the page.

Be Transparent

Children benefit from a caregiver's honesty and developmentally appropriate facts, in this case, about the virus. As Pittman said, "anytime that we give more information and do it in a child-centered way, that provides [kids] a sense of safety and control."

It's equally as important to talk to kids about how we're moving forward. For example, letting children know that wearing masks, washing our hands, staying home when we don't feel well and getting vaccinations are ways we are slowing the spread and taking care of each other. Sharing positive facts can support children in feeling safe and taken care of by members of their community.

You should also acknowledge that for children, the amount of time that has passed since the pandemic began feels much longer than for adults, so validating kids' feelings of it "being forever" since they've seen a certain friend or joined in on a certain activity can help. Check in with your child often about how they're coping. Question ideas might include:

  • "How do you feel about what's going on?"
  • "What's something you would like me to know?"
  • "Today, I'm feeling ____. I feel ____ because ____. How are you feeling today?"

Books like "A Kid's Guide to Coronavirus" by Rebecca Growe and Julia Martin Burch and social stories like "Why Is Everything So Weird?" by the Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Lending Library can support you in having conversations about COVID-19 with young children. You can also explore PBS KIDS for Parents' "How to Talk to Your Kids about Coronavirus" for more resources, including videos, games and activities.

Teach Coping Strategies

For kids, watching someone cope with situations healthily can help them do those things themselves. Pittman said it could also "activate the same parts of the brain that facilitate those actions without even participating in those actions." She said it's important to remember that "children are so much more observant than we believe they are. That's why it's so important to model healthy coping."

But what does healthy coping look like? For Pittman, sometimes it's feeling regulated or having conversations about when you're not feeling regulated.

Sharing positive facts can support children in feeling safe and taken care of by members of their community.

Talk about emotions. Before children can understand what it means to be regulated, they must know what emotions are and how to identify them in their bodies. Exploring emotions with your child empowers them to listen to their body and communicate what they need. Watch this PBS KIDS video about feelings and emotions and invite your child to show you how they feel through body language, gestures, facial expressions and visual cards. Remind your child that it's OK to not feel OK and that emotions pass, just like clouds in the sky. Prompting questions and comment suggestions include:

  • "How are you feeling right now?"
  • "How does your body feel?"
  • "Can you show me where the upset feeling is in your body?"
  • "Do you need space, a hug or time to jump or your trampoline?"

Explain emotional regulation. Regulated caregivers respond to challenges in healthy ways. Self-regulation means we can manage our emotions, behavior and body movements even during crises.

Everyone needs different things to stay regulated, and you can visualize what this means by thinking of "filling your bucket." To do this, find a bucket around your house or invite your child to create their own bucket out of construction paper. Use note cards or pieces of scrap paper to draw and write how we can fill our buckets. Ideas might include playing a game together, cuddling, being kind, reading a book, enjoying a pizza night, playing with friends virtually or in person, taking care of a pet, or going for a walk in nature. Place the pieces of paper in the bucket or glue them to the construction paper. Explain to your child that when our buckets are full, we can fill others' buckets around us.

Next, brainstorm activities or situations that might leave us feeling dysregulated, and relate this to having an empty bucket. Ideas might include a fight, change of plans, sensory overload, frustration about something being out of our control, missing a loved one, losing a game, feeling hungry or sick, or staying home from school. Invite your child to think about ways they can begin to feel balanced when they don't feel good and guide them to some of the words and visuals they used to fill their bucket. When appropriate, engage your child in creating their own emotional regulation plan with words, visuals and magazine cut-outs.

Plan activities to look forward to. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., founder of the Trauma Research Foundation and author of "The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma," said that to reduce the impact of the pandemic, we need connection. We're social human beings. As the pandemic lingers on and school begins again, it's important to dedicate space to create joyful memories with your child. Ideas include (but are not limited to):

  • Friday night pizza and movie night
  • Dance parties
  • Once a week trips to the park for nature scavenger hunts
  • Weekly virtual chats with grandma
  • Family game night
  • Making dinner together every specific day of the week
  • Bake day (sharing baked goods with friends and family)
  • Family slumber parties

Provide Space for Grief

Recently, a lot of things have been causing us grief. From joblessness, losing loved ones and uncertainty about the future, these are all types of grief. When we go through grief, we go through a cycle of loss. Children have been hearing and feeling that distress from the grown-ups in their lives.

When we talk about trauma, we can discuss the impact of these events on our bodies and minds by learning about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons help us empathize with others, and scientists believe that they are why we take on the suffering of those in distress (vicarious trauma). When we identify more closely with the person in distress, this increases the trauma.

Remind your child that it's OK to not feel OK and that emotions pass, just like clouds in the sky.

You can support and honor young children by providing space and time for them to grieve by providing a safe, quiet space in your house with soft lighting, calming jars, music and special items like stuffed animals, soft blankets and gifts from loved ones. These kinds of things can help kids feel safe to heal.

Thinking about how people in your culture heal can also help. Pittman, for example, comes from a Latino family who deals with grief by staying connected and being transparent with each other. "But for other cultures, it might be different," Pittman said. In that case, it's important to "have the understanding that we all grieve and respond in particular ways and be open to those differences."

Books like "The Rabbit Listened" by Cori Doerrfeld and "Death is Stupid" by Anastasia Higginbotham can support children as they work through difficult and complex emotions. You can also check out Sesame Street in Communities for more resources to help your child cope.

If you're worried about your child and notice abnormal behavior changes such as losing interest in a hobby or relationships, reach out to your child's teacher. They will be able to direct you to the right support staff (such as a school psychologist or social worker) who can support your family and child. Alternatively, your child's pediatrician is also a safe person to speak with regarding your concerns.

Books from this Article

Cover of "A Kid's Guide to Coronavirus" by Rebecca Growe and Julia Martin Burch, featuring illustrations of kids
"A Kid's Guide to Coronavirus" written by Rebecca Growe, MSW, LCSW, and Julia Martin Burch, Ph.D. and illustrated by Viviana Garofoli

Cover of "The Rabbit Listened" by Cori Doerrfeld featuring an illustration of a rabbit and child hugging
"The Rabbit Listened" by Cori Doerrfeld

Book cover of "Death is Stupid" written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham
"Death is Stupid" written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham

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