For most families, this year’s first-day-of school rituals were unlike any other.
Some children re-entered school buildings with masks, socially distanced classrooms and Plexiglas dividers. Others started a new grade at kitchen tables, in basements or in bedrooms, meeting their teachers and classmates on screens.
As parents face decisions about in-person school or navigating remote learning from home, many have questions about supporting children’s mental and emotional health, managing screen time, accommodating special education needs and minimizing infection risk while still giving kids important social interactions.
Experts from Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital recently answered parents’ top back to school questions during a live Q &A.
The panel was moderated by Mott developmental behavioral pediatrician Jenny Radesky, M.D., and also included child and adolescent psychiatrist Sheila Marcus, M.D., pediatric psychologist Melissa Cousino, Ph.D., and pediatric infectious diseases specialist Alison Tribble, M.D.
Read the answers to common back-to-school questions from these top children’s health experts below.
Most parents aren’t educators. How can they ensure children are getting both the educational and emotional growth they need? Should parents be considering supplements?
Mott experts point out that educators have been working hard to design novel curriculums to match the new learning environment, with more time to prepare than they had in spring when many schools were suddenly closed.
What not to do: download every new app that promises to teach your child math skills.
What you may consider: If you do want to supplement children’s learning, focus on life skills and emotional learning, experts say. Help them start a gratitude journal or bake apple goods this fall and deliver them to family or neighbors, for example, Cousino suggests.
Pick activities that strengthen “emotional health and resilience as opposed to putting that stress on your family about school,” she says
“Children are still learning about kindness, working together with their community, problem solving and flexibility during the pandemic – values which we know are hugely predictive of future successes,” she notes.
“When parents are feeling stressed about math or reading, it’s helpful to remind yourself that even during a pandemic, children are learning many new things they’ve never faced before and that’s important.”
How should I promote socialization for my child during COVID, and should I limit interaction with other kids?
Tribble says that depending on risk and situations, some families may opt to allow children to socialize with children from households who follow the same safety practices as they do. But they should minimize risk by playing outdoors and keeping a safe distance.
The more families can keep interaction within certain pods or cohorts – whether that’s through neighborhoods or classes – the better. The more you expand that social bubble, the more you increase potential exposure to the virus.
Open communication with families is key, she says. For example, families may agree in advance that if someone goes on vacation or engages in a higher risk activity like going to the movie theater, they should share that information. The same goes for transparency about learning someone in their family has had known exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
In those scenarios, families may ask children to wait a couple of weeks before playing together again.
How will not being around other kids during remote school affect children socially?
Panelists say parents should think about how they can replicate social interactions in socially distant, creative ways.
Maybe you look at old pictures together to remind you of friends you haven’t connected with in some time and drop off a surprise gift or card to their house, Cousino says. Or set up a Zoom or Google hang out at an intentional scheduled time.
Radesky cautions against allowing children to open new social media accounts if they’re not ready simply to give them more social access. “Liking” photos and posts isn’t often a meaningful two-way interaction, she says.
Marcus points out that while the pandemic limits some after school social activities, families who homeschool have always found different ways to support social interactions for their kids. And children undergoing treatment for certain conditions often spend several months out of regular school.
“Children by nature are fairly resilient. Having six months to a year of distance learning is very unlikely to fundamentally change the development trajectory,” Marcus says.
She notes that some of children’s most important socialization comes from their own family, siblings and parents.
“The relationship with parents frankly is what we call the secret sauce – that’s what sets children up for cognitive success or success with intimate relationships,” she says. “Don’t discount the relationship you have with your children.”
How should parents manage screen time during COVID?
With children using screens for school and social interactions, it’s difficult to stick to usual screen time rules. Some parents may also be working from home while children are there and find that screens help keep children occupied during downtimes.
Radesky’s biggest message: Kids may be spending more time on screens right now. Don’t feel guilty about it.
Parents should worry less about the amount of screen time and focus more on the content children are engaging with, she says. Focus on positive content, such as programs offered through PBS Kids or Sesame Street for younger children. For older kids, maybe it’s content that promotes mindfulness or something the family can do together, like looking up recipes or Face-timing friends or relatives. Common Sense Media is a good resource for ideas for content based on age.
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Parents may also consider reducing exposure to content that may lead to aggressive or irritable behavior afterwards, such as violent video games.
When possible, encouraging hands-on activities through the day to help children learn through other experiences is also a plus.
“We know this isn’t a perfect way to engage kids with their classrooms,” she notes about virtual school. “We have to do what’s good enough right now.”
How can families of children with special needs like ADHD or learning challenges, who usually rely on special services at school, navigate the remote learning setting?
For children with individualized education plans, or IEPs, and different learning styles or processing information, remote learning and engaging through a screen may be especially challenging. This may include students with ADHD and autism.
Radesky recommends ongoing communication with the teacher and special education team and advocating for some socially distant in-person sessions if possible. Some teachers may only be able to offer 1:1 virtual meetings.
“It’s always worth asking if a child can get extra support,” she says.
Keeping in touch with outpatient therapists or starting new therapies to strengthen life skills learning, self-regulation, frustration tolerance and flexibility are also beneficial.
She notes that many of the families she sees have reported defiance and behavioral issues cropping up in response to remote school. Therapists can help coach parents through positive behavioral reinforcement plans that give children more control. Some families, such as those whose children have autism, have found that doubling down on outpatient therapies is valuable during this period.
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