What your kid might not be telling you about being back in school

Most children have returned to in-person learning, and counselors are seeing plenty of adjustment challenges. Here’s how parents can help.

When counselor Lydia McNeiley greeted the eighth graders returning to Charles N. Scott Middle School in Hammond, Indiana, this August, she couldn’t believe how tall they looked. “They’ve grown a foot since the last time I saw them,” says McNeiley, who—like school counseling staff across the country—had to do most of her work online last year.

Virtual check-ins had their limits. And, of course, because students had been living through a global pandemic, their needs were greater than ever. Parents lost jobs, families lost homes, and far too many children lost loved ones. That’s a lot for developing brains to process, she notes, especially while physically separated from friends and other support networks.

So, along with their backpacks and growth spurts, students are bringing lingering trauma to school with them. “It’s not a regular school year,” McNeiley adds. “I don’t know what a regular year will look like in the future, but we’re not there now.”

Counselors have always dealt with kids struggling with emotions, academic performance, and behavior issues. What’s new for this school year is that these problems are amplified, explains Josh Godinez, president of the California Association of School Counselors. There’s never been a harder—or more critical—time to be on the job.

“We’re the first line of defense,” says Godinez, who works at Centennial High School in Corona, California. “We triage these situations as they walk through the door.”

Here’s what parents need to know about what these professionals are seeing this year, and how they can join the team effort required to get kids back on track.

Issue 1: Facing new mental health challenges

Returning students excited to be back have been quickly drained of energy, says Alma Lopez, a middle school counselor with Livingston Union School District in rural central California. And she’s never had so many self-referrals of students coming directly to her, opening up about depression, anxiety, and the ways their lives have changed since 2020. “Some have experienced significant deaths and need to process that,” she says.

Although counselors welcome these conversations—and are grateful that kids know to seek them out—this surge highlights how much students are hurting and having trouble accessing mental health care, sometimes waiting months for appointments.

“Their issues don’t just go on pause,” Godinez says. “If a student isn’t there mentally, the student can’t perform academically.”

How parents can help. Communicating with teachers and counselors about what’s happening with your kids makes it easier to work together. McNeiley advises parents to reach out about one-on-one or small group meetings at school with counselors, who can help with suggestions for encouraging healthier sleep habits or developing strategies for approaching assignments.

At home, keep talking and watch for changes in behavior. “We remind parents to just do a check-in and ask, ‘How was your day?’” Godinez says. Family schedules have shifted along with school schedules in recent months, which is why he says it’s especially important to understand how your kids are coping.

Issue 2: Dealing with fears about COVID-19

Fear of getting sick—or infecting vulnerable family members—is just one of countless worries related to COVID-19. Because many households with health concerns have stuck with distance learning, it’s often the in-school protocols that are sending kids to a counselor’s office.

Jenny Hubler, a middle school counselor in Henrico County, Virginia, recently found herself comforting a student with a stomachache who was scared to see the school nurse. “He didn’t want to be sent home for 10 days because he’d already done that,” explains Hubler, who talked to him about why it’s vital to look after your health no matter what. (He did not have to quarantine again, Hubler adds.)

Counselors are also dealing with fallout from families at a school having opposing views on rules. Pam Powell, a K-8 counselor, says that mask exemptions at her Ontario, California, private school have led to a situation in which the student body has become visibly divided. “We have students who are wearing masks, and students who aren’t,” she says. Students bring the talking points they’ve heard at home to the playground, setting the stage for strife. 

How parents can help. “We’re all in this together” is one of Powell’s mantras; that phrase can also help parents remind kids why COVID-19 protocols are so important. As for the divisiveness, parents can explain to kids that other families may have different perspectives, but it’s important to disagree respectfully. And if a child is worried about being mocked for wearing a mask when other kids aren’t? Powell tells her own children: “You can always blame Mommy.”

Issue 3: Being around so many people

For students accustomed to being home alone, just entering a classroom of kids is often a test of nerves. The cacophony of noises bouncing off the walls of the cafeteria and gym can be terrifying.

“It’s fear of being around so many peers at once—too much is going on,” says McNeiley, who’s had students come to her office simply to find a quiet spot. (She offers them coloring sheets instead of forced conversation.)

Readjusting to being in a large group can “feel like an invasion of personal space,” explains Godinez, adding that many kids feel like they’re the only ones struggling. “You’re walking around and everyone looks fine.” That’s contributing to higher anxiety levels at many schools, so counselors like Godinez are funneling more students into small group meetings to discuss their feelings and help them recognize they’re not alone.

How parents can help. Kids need to know it’s OK to feel anxious about being in a new environment. “Things look different to them now and we can’t pretend they’re not different,” McNeiley explains. Telling kids to “get over it,” won’t fix anything, she says. But encouraging journaling, drawing, or other activities might help them process their emotions.

Issue 4: Handling conflict

Face-to-face problems feel pretty foreign after a year of online school, Hubler notes. “On a device, if someone annoys you, you can turn it off,” she says. “You can’t do that in real life.” The result has been more conflicts than she’s ever seen.

Godinez has noticed aggressive behavior beginning with the slightest provocations. “They bump into somebody in the hall, and they don’t have the communication skills to know what to say,” he says. “That leads to a physical fight.”

When Hubler sees students after an incident, she focuses on how to handle similar situations the next time by thinking about what they could say to diffuse tensions and understanding things from another kid’s perspective.

How parents can help. You can role-play as a family and practice thinking before you act so kids can make the best choice for a particular situation. Also be mindful of how you interact with your kids, partner, and friends. “Show grace and kindness to each other, and model that behavior,” Hubler adds.

Issue 5: Making and keeping friends

Hubler kicks off every school year by asking students what they want to work on. This year, a record number reported having trouble making and keeping good friends. “It was hard to form relationships and meet new people staring at a screen,” Hubler explains.

Some pals drifted apart during remote learning, which has left many students feeling like they’re starting over. And others don’t have the patience they normally would. “When there’s a disagreement, friendships are over rather than them working it out,” Powell says.

Eroded communication skills are once again to blame, especially among kids who prefer texting to talking. “When students face each other in my office, they say it’s so weird,” Powell explains. “They’re way more comfortable on group chats.” She has them look directly at each other and start statements with “I feel,” and they’re often able to get past whatever issue prompted the rift.

How parents can help. Lopez advises parents to go back to setting firmer screen limits and rules, many of which were abandoned during lockdowns. Fill that time instead with in-person events and playdates, and encourage kids to join afterschool activities to meet friends with similar interests.

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