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Supporting Children Emotionally as They Transition to In-Person Settings

5 min read

Clarke Buddies gather (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Clarke Buddies gather (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Many children were disappointed when health precautions during the pandemic closed schools, cancelled events, paused sports and postponed social activities. But the gradual return to in-person school and events may not be universally welcomed either. For many children and their families, the past year has been traumatic—manifesting in uncertainty and even anxiety about venturing out again.

It’s a scenario familiar to Beth Rochon, MEd, EdS, school counselor at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, Massachusetts, which houses a Clarke Model Inclusion Program for junior high and high school students with hearing loss. 

The Impact on Children

“The anxiety, uncertainty, stress and changes to routine have affected kids in significant ways — academically, socially, psychologically and economically for some,” Beth points out. “That hasn’t gone away just because more of us are vaccinated.”

In fact, as conditions and restrictions continue to change—and children anticipate doing more—they may feel a mix of excitement and anxiety. “What that looks like is as individual as each kid,” she adds.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing learning in mainstream settings may face an additional challenge. Beth notes that in many cases, remote learning may not have provided the same level of accommodations they needed. And if a child can’t fully access the curriculum, they’re at a higher risk of academic backsliding.

Some children with hearing loss are more concerned about how they perform in school and are well aware they have to work harder to keep up. “Not only are they more vulnerable to gaps and delays, they may be more concerned about any academic deficits,” Beth notes. “That can cause higher levels of stress and anxiety, plus the anxiety of being in social situations again.”

What To Look For

Children demonstrate anxiety and other mental health challenges in a variety of ways. Beth said that among young children, parents and educators might notice development regression, crying easily, aggressive behavior or play involving themes of illness and death. For older children, the primary sign is mood changes that aren’t typical for that child.

The teen years are prone to angst, but any changes that stand out for frequency or persistence—conflicts with friends/family, withdrawing from once-favored activities, drastic changes to sleeping, eating or grooming habits, feeling of hopelessness or substance abuse—can be signs of distress. Beth added that if a child starts talking about their death or suicide, it should be taken seriously and you should seek professional help for them immediately.

Setting an Example

Families and educators may also have post-pandemic anxiety and trauma. It’s important to be aware of, and actively tend to, your own mental health—similar to the guidance on airplanes to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. You have to be in a healthy place to help your children. 

“Kids are sponges. You can inadvertently pass on that anxiety to your kids,” Beth says. “Treatment for their own anxiety is helpful if they have the resources to do that. The more we take care of ourselves and our own mental health the more effective we’ll be at parenting, coaching or mentoring.”

Ways to Ease the Transition

The good news: There are several ways families and educators can support children as they navigate the return to in-person activities.

Beth says one of the most important is providing space and empathy for kids to express themselves and share their fears. “Even if those fears don’t necessarily resonate with you, say ‘I hear you. Thank you for telling me,’ or a similar form of validation. Let them know you care and are there with them,” she advises.  

If a child is worried about specific social scenarios, such as meeting new people or feeling awkward after a year of not seeing many people, families can help by rehearsing likely dialogues or role-playing situations to give their child a chance to practice how they can respond in different situations.

It’s also helpful to plan how you’ll reacclimate your child in ways that work for them. “Anxiety can involve avoidance behaviors, so find ways to help them engage,” she says. That could be taking part in school programs or extracurriculars, meeting friends at a playground, or getting older kids together for a hike or other outing. “You don’t want to reinforce isolating activities.“

But Beth advises against pushing too hard, too fast. Have expectations about what your child or family will do, but be flexible about them. If a child tries an activity and it’s too much for them, don’t hesitate to make changes mid-stream. “We need to extend a lot of grace to ourselves, our kids and each other. We’re not being indulgent by being kind to each other,” she says.  

When planning activities, consider how much your child has been doing during the pandemic and gradually increase from there. “It’s a balancing act. For some kids who haven’t been able to do anything, jumping into everything all at once might be too much, especially if it’s a big school transition year,” she says. “Another kid who’s been able to access some activities, it may be fine. You have to talk to them and be thoughtful about it.”

Self-Help Skills for Dealing with Anxiety

For ongoing anxiety, parents can provide kids with tools to help them emotionally self-regulate. The key is to do it before a crisis. “Help them practice when they aren’t escalated or triggered,” Beth says. “Then they have them when they need them.”

The techniques that work best vary by the child—and sometimes the situation. Beth recommends trying a few of the following:

  • Breathing Exercises. One great technique is called starfish breathing. With your hand spread out like a starfish, use one hand to trace the other. “You slowly trace up one finger and inhale, trace down and exhale, etc. It gets the parasympathetic system to help the brain relax,” says Beth.

  • Five Senses Activities. Ask the child to name five things they can see, four they can feel, three they can hear, two they can smell and one they can taste. This simple activity refocuses their mind on what’s going on around them rather than what’s going on inside them.

  • Rhythmic Activity. Walking, drumming, etc., refocuses the mind and soothes emotions.

These techniques help in the moment, but if a child experiences persistent symptoms that affect their ability to function, they need additional support. If you’re not sure where to start or don’t have good access to resources, talk to your child’s pediatrician, a school counselor or a similar professional to learn about available options.

Beth notes that so many of us are eager to get back to the business of living and getting children back into the swing of school, “but we need to be cognizant of the psychological impacts on our kids,” she says. “We may not be intentionally sweeping it under the rug, but it doesn’t benefit them to ignore it. We can’t assume that kids are psychologically or cognitively ready to jump back in. They’re going to need time to feel the familiarity of their school, friends, teachers and feel safe in those environments again.”

She adds that if parents or educators rush children too quickly, or overreact when they feel triggered, it can do more harm than good. But the long-term outlook isn’t dire. Children are resilient and with the proper support, they will thrive again.

“They’ve missed out on so much, but they’ve also shown so much resilience… and they’ve gotten better at dealing with change and adversity,” Beth says.

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