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How you can protect the mental health of kids as they return to school

Posted at 8:31 AM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 08:31:23-04

(WXYZ) — The start of the 2021-2022 school year will be the third year changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we're all coping with the forced changes brought on by the crisis, children are navigating this experience at a pivotal time in their development, physically, emotionally and socially.

With the start of the school year here, another new batch of parents is sending kids off to school with COVID-19 worries. And, families and schools are trying to help our children cope with the burden of pandemic.

For many families, the start of this school year brings a mix of excitement and worry. With the resurgent pandemic, some fear another year of stops and starts and sudden changes to virtual learning fueled by school-based outbreaks. But experts say we can learn from our children.

Former school counselor and Oakland University Assistant Professor Rebecca Vannest says parents set expectations for how their children perceive the challenges of the pandemic. Parents risk undermining their child's ability to adjust with excessive venting.

"(Venting) about our own worries or saying things like, 'this is going to ruin your year at school' and instead give them positive messages," Vannest said.

Without setting false expectations, the messages should focus on our ability to persevere.

"Throughout history, things have been really hard. But the good news is we can do hard things," she added.

Vannest says the school year will be easier if we and our children focus on empathy and flexibility and not let a charged COVID-19 climate infect our relations with others.

The CDC offers 5 steps schools can take to support students as they return to school.

5. Managing family and staff expectations through clear communication.
4. Promote mental health for school staff.
3. Support equity.
2. Creating a welcoming school environment for all to foster a sense of belonging
1. Make a plan.

Michael Essaily, the executive director of special populations for Dearborn Schools, says the district has been updating their plan throughout the pandemic and are ready to help students navigate the new year. And understanding the stress students face inside and outside of the classroom. Dearborn Public Schools with continue their hotline linking struggling students to mental health support.

"They would be actually routed to either a counselor, social worker, or psychologist, where we would provide that on-site help," he said.

The support is crucial to students who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, gone through infection themselves or are struggling with isolation, depression or anxiety.

Also, this year, every school in the district will have a full-time social worker. They are just part of the professionals and staff members keeping a watchful eye on all young learners.

"To detect, hopefully, what students may need additional support or what students may be going through some types of situations that are challenging in their lives," Essaily said.

In addition to expanding trauma-based education, a thinking that holds addressing childhood trauma is key to learning, the district is getting ready to launch a social-emotional website.

"There are resources, resources not only for our teachers and staff, but also for our family members and our communities," he added.

Vannest says it's OK to have a frank but age-appropriate conversation with your child. And it's OK to reach out to your child in a way that's most likely to get them to open up.

"Text them, start a conversation with them over their phone by texting, or you can write them a note and they can write you a note back," she said.

So when do you reach out to your child?

Vannest says some signs your child is struggling to cope include mood swings, personality changes, sleep distrubances, changes in eating patterns and losing interest in their favorite activities.

These can be signs of depression or anxiety and will want to check in with their kids to help them with the burden they're carrying

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

Visit our The Rebound Detroit, a place where we are working to help people impacted financially from the coronavirus. We have all the information on everything available to help you through this crisis and how to access it.