By CHRISTOPHER MARINO
Never have our children, families or teachers prepared themselves for such a school year - only to then face a shutdown and the uncertainty of eventually re-returning to school, however that may look.
In years past, the back to school checklist for parents was, for the most part, predictable - shop for new clothes, find everything on the class supplies list, sign the kids up for sports or clubs and figure out the weekly schedule from there.
This year we’ve lost that comforting sense of predictability. Clothes shopping this year meant picking out facemasks. School supplies included hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. The sports and extracurricular activities our children turned to for socialization and fun are not guaranteed.
The predictability and routine that helps our children build resiliency and confidence when returning to school simply doesn’t exist this year.
For children with special learning needs or behavioral health issues, every school year brings with it a degree of uncertainty. The worries of being able to stay out of trouble, focus in class, make friends and avoid bullying are real and hard to ignore. These concerns and anxieties can lead to other social, emotional and academic challenges in a typical year, let alone one like this.
What we need to remember is that all children rely on structured routines, positive reinforcement and support from their families, teachers, paraprofessionals, and social workers to overcome these barriers.
At CMHA, we provide behavioral health services for children and families who are struggling. Every summer our staff help families approach the return to school from a strength-based perspective - helping kids develop social and coping skills to manage anxiety and depression.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, conversations with children and their parents about returning (and re-returning) to school has been very different, and our experts at CMHA have this advice:
• It’s important for parents to be able to listen, validate and empathize with what their child is experiencing.
• It is very tempting to say “It’ll be OK” or “You won’t get sick, don’t worry” when we see our children are anxious - it’s a natural, comforting response. But by responding this way, we may prevent them from learning new problem solving and coping skills that will help them manage their worries.
• Many children right now are experiencing worries that are very new, and they may not have the words to describe it. This is where parents - and CMHA - can help. We know that when we are able to name the feeling, we gain a better ability to understand and manage it.
It isn’t just our children who need support right now, it’s the parents and guardians too. The difficult question weighing on their shoulders this school year is: “Am I making the best decision for my child?”
Many may be considering home-schooling for the first time because it feels like the safer option. But it’s impossible to replicate an equal learning environment and provide the same academic resources children receive at school. And of course, kids are missing the teachers who have such an impact on their lives.
Teachers have such an unwavering commitment to each and every one of their students, and this commitment extends beyond a student’s academic success. Teachers can provide unconditional positive regard, praise and emotional support; they are a trusted adult. Many teachers are asking how they can continue to provide this commitment to their students with all of the precautions and restrictions covid-19 has placed on schools and communities. Teachers are also faced with another dilemma - how do they keep themselves and their own families safe?
To our teachers and parents - we know that so much is out of your control right now. For everyone trying to support a child through these trying times, please remember: we can focus on what we can’t control and feel helpless, or focus on what we can control and feel helpful.
One of the most important things teachers can do right now is to have a positive impact on students’ emotional health - and you don’t have to be a therapist to do it! Be patient, be compassionate, and most importantly be conscious of the fact that we do not know what our students have experienced or felt during this quarantine. Remove biases or assumptions. Be available and listen. Our kids are eager to connect and build relationships with you again.
Parents, if your kids need additional support, we are here for your family. At CMHA, our strength-based approach doesn’t stop with the child; we apply the same to our work with parents. We know how important each and every parent is when supporting our children - we could not do this work without you!
We know this year is going to continue to be different, difficult, and unpredictable - but don’t forget that you are important, smart and resilient. Don’t let the world change your smile, let your smile change the world.
Christopher Marino, LPC, is an Assistant Clinical Director of Outpatient and Intensive Services at CMHA. If you or a loved one needs additional help, contact CMHA at 860-224-8192 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Community Mental Health Affiliates, Inc. (CMHA) is a private non-profit behavioral health treatment provider headquartered in New Britain, with locations in Waterbury and Torrington. CMHA partners with clients and the community to promote Recovery from mental illness and addiction, treating more than 7,000 adults and children each year. Visit cmhacc.org to learn more.