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Back to school
How South Florida students, parents and teachers are coping with a return to the classroom.
Students will be under all manner of pandemic-related stresses as they hit classrooms for the new school year, but there is a lot of help available to make the transition back to school easier.
Dr. Lisa Gwynn, a pediatrician and medical director for the Pediatric Mobile Clinic at the University of Miami, says her best advice for parents whose children are anxious or are having a difficult transition back to school is to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, talk with your child every day and communicate regularly with teachers.
Some students haven’t seen their pediatricians during the pandemic, so Gwynn advises parents to watch for any new health issues that crop up and make sure kids are up to date on their other vaccines.
Signs to watch for in kids for anxiety, depression
Parents also should watch for signs of anxiety and depression such as not wanting to get up in the morning or resistance to going to school, said Gwynn.
“Beginning-of-school jitters are normal, but parents need to see if something above and beyond is going on,” said Dr. Elizabeth Pulgaron, a psychologist and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at UM. “Eating and sleeping disruptions and tantrums, this is above and beyond.”
For younger children who are expressing anxiety about the return to school, parents might show them pictures of the school, then drive by the campus and walk up to the school entrance as the child practices deep breathing, said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a pediatrician, professor of clinical pediatrics and associate director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami.
Parents need to remember they can’t make the world perfect for their children, especially during the chaos of a global pandemic, Brosco said.
A better way for a parent to help a child “is to say, ‘You’ll figure it out, overcome it and get through it,’ ” he said. “Learning to deal with anxiety is how we develop resilience.”
Brosco said it’s important now that children are going back to school to reestablish routines to minimize stress levels in the household.
Parents need to look out not only for the well-being of their children but also try to take care of themselves. “When there is stress in the family, it comes out in the kids,” he said.
Research shows that mindfulness practices, deep breathing, yoga, and prayer or spirituality can help reduce anxiety levels in children, said Brosco. Exercising, using self-relaxation apps, minimizing time spent in front of the screen or learning to play a musical instrument also can help settle children down, he added.
Pulgaron, who counsels students at nine clinics in Miami-Dade Public Schools as part of the UM School Health Initiative, said she emphasizes accepting things that cannot be controlled, such as how many people are sick or when the pandemic will end.
She tells students: “There are things we can control and things we cannot control. We can control our emotions, our actions and our behavior.”
Pulgaron, who serves as director of mental health services for the Health Initiative, also teaches relaxation and organizational skills, breaking down thorny problems and telling kids she counsels: “Let’s work on one thing that you can control.”
Experts say changes in a child’s sleeping habits — trouble sleeping or not wanting to get up — loss of appetite, acting out and tantrums or resistance to returning to school can be signs of anxiety or depression.
“Transitioning back to early childhood programs or school — or starting them for the first time — can create extra challenges during a pandemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
CDC tips for easing transition to school
Here are tips from the CDC to ease the transition for students returning to school:
▪ Make sure the child has a daily, predictable routine with regular times for healthy meals, naps and night sleep at home. Having a rested body and knowing what to expect at home help children cope.
▪ Monitor developmental milestones and learn what to do if there are concerns.
▪ Talk to a healthcare professional if a child’s symptoms of anxiety or behavioral problems are severe or persistent.
For students with new concerns that persist, ask the school for an evaluation to see if the child may need special educational services or accommodations. For children with identified disabilities, ask the program to review their Individualized Education Program.
Talk with teachers about the best way to separate from an anxious child at the start of the day — brief goodbyes are often best.
Phone numbers, websites for families
▪ Miami-Dade County Public Schools parental assistance line: 305-995-7100. School officials say if students are experiencing problems, parents should seek help now to help ease the challenges of returning to the classroom.
▪ Miami-Dade County Public Schools Mental Health Services: The website has a wealth of school and community resources for emotional and mental health support: https://mentalhealthservices.dadeschools.net/#!/fullWidth/3939
▪ Broward County Public Schools Student Services: 754-321-1550
▪ BCPS School Social Work Services: 754-321-1618
▪ BCPS Counseling Program: 754-321-1590
▪ Students enrolled in Broward County Public Schools can find mental health resources on the Talk App available on the district’s Clever portal for students.
Resources for anxiety
▪ Cool Little Kids Online: Free online program for children 3-6 years of age who are shy: Https://coollittlekids.org.au/login
▪ AnxietyBC: Https://www.anxietybc.com/
▪ Apps that help teach relaxation: MindShift, Inner Peace for Kids, Breath2Relax, Smiling Minds
▪ Books: ”Freeing Your Child from Anxiety” (Chansky, 2014), “Make your Worrier a Warrior” (Peters, 2013), “Growing Up Brave” (Pincus, 2012)
Sources: CDC, MDCPS, BCPS, Dr. Jeffrey Brosco