Now that fall has arrived and classes have started, what can parents and caregivers do to help ensure they’re staying in healthy routines? What should they be watching for in their children, whether school is in-person or remote? Jerlym Porter, PhD, of the St. Jude Psychology Department, offers advice on navigating and coping with the 2020–21 school year.

Question: What should parents say to their children who are attending school in person in terms of their child’s conduct and behavior?

Answer: It’s best to collaborate with your school — mutually agreed-upon goals, joint decision-making and shared responsibility for academic functioning are critical. Talk to your child frequently about academic and behavioral expectations and maintain regular communication with teachers and school personnel about your child’s progress.

Q: Children socialize at school, which is critical for development and mental health. What are those developmental milestones, and is there a way for parents to help or support their children when those opportunities are missing or limited?

A: Social-emotional learning is important for healthy development. This learning helps children understand and process their emotions, form social connections, develop empathy for others and make responsible decisions. Strategies to promote social-emotional learning at school or at home include:

  • Reinforcing appropriate behavior through verbal praise
  • Encouraging cooperation with peers or family members through activities such as cooking or baking together, doing puzzles, creating art projects, or playing board games
  • Encouraging emotional expression through creative arts or journaling
  • Teaching empathy by helping others, such as preparing and delivering meals to an elderly neighbor or family member, sewing masks or volunteering

Q: What behaviors should parents and guardians watch for in their children who are learning remotely—such as heightened anxiety or lowered activity levels? What can parents do to help their students cope?

A: You can help children manage their anxiety by listening and being empathetic. Normalize that we are living in a time with many changes and unknowns. Explore with them their worries and concerns. Regularly check in and suggest ways to cope—such as using creative expression and relaxation and mindfulness strategies and encouraging social connections virtually. For younger children, build in outside time and activities.

Q: Should parents adjust their expectations about their child’s school performance this fall?

A: According to educational psychologists, successful learning environments at home should prioritize intrinsic goals such as well-being, relationships and interest over extrinsic goals such as achievement and task completion.

Q: What about the risk of depression in children or adults? What are things to watch out for?

A: Children are missing their friends, teachers and social activities in addition to having concerns about the coronavirus and social unrest. Parents are juggling work, home and children’s schooling in the midst of a pandemic.

Some things to look for:

  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Crying or vocal outbursts
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability or anger
  • Poor concentration 
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

When these symptoms continue or interfere with normal activities, school, work or family life, contact a mental health professional.

Q: What can parents and teachers do to ensure their own mental health?

A: Children pick up on parental anxiety, so caregivers and teachers need to recognize and address their own anxiety and make time for self-care. Create a meaningful routine to support your own emotional well-being.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Try yoga, meditation or journaling.
  • Limit social media and news programs.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Eat well-balanced meals.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Connect with others.

Q: How can parents best support their children’s mental health when so much has changed, not just regarding school?

A: Family rituals, such as reading a story before bedtime, doing chores or having special names for each other, can support family bonding and promote a sense of security in children. Spend quality time with children making and eating meals together, taking a walk, playing games or reading. Just be present. Be kind to yourself and others in your household.