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How Can Parents Prepare As Another Pandemic School Year Approaches?

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Sai Di Silva
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We speak with UCF psychology assistant professor Dalena Taylor about how to talk to kids about mental health and what routines to consider.

With coronavirus cases rising in Central Florida ahead of another school year, children might experience more than first-day nerves as they return to class.

WMFE and Health News Florida spoke with University of Central Florida psychology associate professor Dalena Taylor about how to talk to kids about mental health and what routines to consider.

WMFE: You know, you had told me an interesting story before our conversation that, you know, you’re getting calls from desperate parents who just can’t find therapists. What does that, you know, speak to the need right now for mental health services in children.

Taylor: I think what’s really happening is that we’re starting to notice some behavioral shifts in children’s, just kind of their presentation in what’s going on, especially as we’re kind of entering into the summer and school’s kind of out for right now. Parents tend to use summer as “oh, we can be more carefree, we can be more relaxed.” And what we know about children is that they really thrive in structure and routines. And so without those in place, and with kind of taking in whatever their parents are experiencing, we’re really seeing some greater need.

Yeah. And what routines or conversation should parents be having with their kids right now, as we’re getting really close to the start of the school year?

One of the main things is recognizing that children need social interaction, and it’s figuring out social interaction that you’re comfortable with as a parent, you know, especially with rising cases right now, “what am I OK with,” but I also want to make sure that I’m scaffolding some of those playdates or you know, interactions with other children so that they’re healthy, positive interactions that children can be prepared for, as they enter into a classroom, that does have more structure and a lot more kids than probably what they experienced last year.

That would be one thing. I think the other thing parents can do is have a consistent ritual experience with kids on a weekly basis, whether that be family game night, whether it be you know, dinner once a week, something that’s predictable for kids. So if there is a conversation they’re wanting to have, or really wanting to connect with their parents, they have the opportunity to do that ahead of the school year.

I love that. And we know what emotional distress looks like for most of us in adults. But what about in kids? What symptoms should moms and dads be looking for right now, if their child maybe isn’t very communicative about how they feel?

I think some of the things to really pay attention to is any changes in your child’s presentation. So if they were acting, say, you know, maybe a little bit more energetic, you know, they were, you know, outgoing, and you’re seeing shifts in that, that might be something to pay attention to, as well as if you see shifts in sleep, or in their eating habits.

You know, and on the flip side of that for teachers, because they’re kind of the parents during the day, what would you recommend they do to address, you know, some of the anxieties kids might have, especially now that we’re seeing cases rise again, and the kids are hearing about it, too. So what can they do to help them in the classroom?

A lot of reassurance and being calm, ‘hey, we’re going to do things together, we’re going to keep each other safe here,’ you know, like, you’re helping encourage hand washing, and you know taking care of one another, checking in with them. I think teachers can also do a really good job of, especially when we’re talking about like elementary aged kids, helping them with some of the transitions you know.

So as they transition from one thing to another, just creating that predictability, ‘hey, in five minutes, we’re going to be able to transition’ because they’ve been so off of their routine for this past year. It’s going to be much more challenging for kids as they enter into that classroom. So the more teachers can really kind of communicate and let the kid know what’s going on and set that routine early. I think the better off they’re going to be.