Emotional struggles likely to be part of any learning plan for kids

Kyung Lee chose the virtual option for her soon to be seventh and fourth graders. Like Kyung, parents across the state are debating whether to send their kids back to school, weighing safety and the mental health of their kids.

“I have a lot of time anxiety, so if I had to panic everyday about, ‘Oh, is today the school day?’ ‘Is today the day that I have to make sure my kids have masks?’ So for us it was not worth the stress,” she said.

Jill Olsen’s two daughters are entering their last years of high school unsure whether their hybrid model will last more than just a few weeks.

“So the anxiety definitely is there, and the not knowing. The not knowing what’s going to happen, if it will shut down or not,” Olsen said.

Anxiety is an emotion many parents say their kids are experiencing, some for the first time.

“What we’re seeing is that young children are truly being affected by not being in school. They’re feeling isolated, they’re losing that sense of connection, not just with their friends, but with their teachers. Children don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m having a tough day.’ Instead, especially for our younger students, they might act out. So we really want to make sure that parents are looking at their children, having conversations with their children,” said Tricia Baker, cofounder of Attitudes in Reverse.

And while teachers have endless new challenges in the coming year, mental health experts say they’re an important safety net for students as well.

“If their instincts tell them that that individual may be acting in a way that’s less than usual, asking the question, ‘Can I be of assistance?’ or, ‘Can I be of help’ is really important. And very often, asking the child, ‘Is there something wrong’ may not get you the answer you’re looking for because the child may not endorse that. But asking is there anything I can do to be of help is often the best way to approach it,” said Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care President and CEO Frank Ghinassi.

If any child show signs of depression or mentions the word ‘suicide’, parents and teachers should take that very seriously.

“Half of all mental health issues actually occur before the age of 14,” Baker said. “We’ve also looked, the suicide rate for those 12 and under has actually doubled in the last 10 years.”

But there are a lot of tools parents can use to create a more positive environment, no matter what happens with the school year.

“Get back into a regular sleep/wake cycle. Try to get to bed and get up at about the same time, quite frankly, 7 days a week,” said Ghinassi.

“You need to set up a schedule; what time do you wake up, what time do you have breakfast, what time do we start school, and then put that schedule on the refrigerator so kids can keep track of, well I’m in school until this time, but I have this to look forward to,” Baker said.

If a child shows any signs of mental health struggles, experts say don’t hesitate or let embarrassment get in the way from getting help. Anyone in crisis can text the word ‘AIR’ to 741-741.