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Returning to school in the times of COVID-19 (anxiety and how to help our children)

Fall finally arrived and brings with it the anxiously expected 2020-2021 school year. Depending on the age of your child, the levels of your anxiety may vary. If you are a new parent, the anxiety of sending your precious child to school is probably already high enough without the added stress of the ongoing pandemic. School choices always posed a challenge for parents due to many factors. Some of those factors are as simple as not wanting (or not being ready) for your child to move out of your reach and onto the next level of their learning ladder. There are factors such as the socio-economic status of some families that are more complex to handle since many aspects may fall out of your control.

As seamless as it may appear to sit in front of our screens and judge the decisions of other families during these difficult times, we may not fully grasp the situation that those families are in unless we find ourselves in similar conditions. As it is usually the case, many of us are doing what we deem best while others simply don’t have as many choices available for them to pick from. As odd as it may sound, one thing that brings us all together is our common enemy : Anxiety

Anxiety in children is real and it starts as early as the toddler years. As adults, we experience anxiety similarly, however we are equipped with tools to regulate our emotions. These tools enable us to find coping mechanisms that our children did not currently develop. Anxious children will not show us biting nails, tears or fear as many would expect. Instead we might encounter a defiant toddler, an irritable infant, a child that might start having trouble sleeping (after perhaps sleeping very well before) and finally anger. Anger is often the “go-to” emotion when we don’t know how to handle what we REALLY feel.

Children growing up in a stressful environment or without consistency in their lives tend to have difficulty learning according to research. Right now the growing anxiety of parents is the worry that their child might fall behind. With that in mind, what parents truly should be focusing on is providing their children an optimal learning environment for their needs in which they feel safe and secured by the adults around them. In other words : If you show yourself anxious and uncertain, your child will not only feel the same but experience despair and hopelessness since the people they look up to seem lost and unsure. These series of emotions impair their ability to focus and as a result might tamper with their learning journey.

Try your best to be the person you know your child needs right now. It sounds easy but it takes a lot of work to remain calm in situations of high stress such as a global pandemic. Our brains over produce certain substances (adrenaline) that when taken too many times might dysregulate our stress responses and as result impact the way that we react. Our ability to fight or flight when used correctly keeps us safe and even alive. When overused, we saturate that part of our brain and in return remain in a constant state of alertness. It's as unhealthy as it sounds. This is true for adults and for children but is extremely critical for a developing brain (from ages 0 to 3).

What does this ultimately mean in terms of schooling ? you might ask. Should I send my child back to school or keep them home?

That’s a great question. The truth is that it ultimately will depend on your family’s needs. Every family is unique and thrives in different environments with varied resources available to them . Our school districts are different, our communities are different. Consider YOUR own situation and then make the best decision for YOUR family. Don’t let peer pressure from your neighbors or your friends push you into a decision that you are not comfortable with. When getting contradicting information from pediatricians, health officials and public institutions we need to stick to what we all agree in and what we truly know at the moment.

In an article published recently by the New York Times these were the main points made when considering sending your child back to school.

  • Fewer children than adults become infected. But childhood infection is not uncommon.

  • Children do become sick with the virus, but deaths are very rare.

  • Children can spread the virus to others. How often is still unknown.

Whatever decision you make, I recommend that you fully embrace it so your child can build off your confidence and lessen their anxiety.

If you decide to keep your child home which can be an ideal option for some families, make sure you are prepared with facing challenges of working from home while helping your child with their learning experience. Depending on their age, those challenges might be different but I’m sure with preparation and the right resources you’ll rise to the occasion.

For example, if your child is doing virtual learning, make sure they have a quiet and personal space to sit for their virtual classroom meetings. If you need more tips on this particular case and home schooling please visit this blog post.

Some of you may have heard about the new learning pods trend. Learning pods are a well intended idea that if done right can be a wonderful option for those in closed communities with limited options. Children generally thrive better when learning in a social environment. I would only recommend joining a learning pod as long as it remains within your local state and DOH guidelines, in other words : Legal.

Adults watching children that are not their own are only allowed to do so (in the state of New York) for three hours a day or less (when watching more than three children including their own) and cannot have more than three children in their home or space including their own! (This if the care will be more than 3 hours)

I own a Daycare and a Preschool and I’m versatile in article 416 that regulates Daycares and article 47 that regulates preschools and other commercial learning settings for children. Supervising children for learning purposes in your home comes with great responsibility and as a result is being regulated by the state. Please do your research prior to joining one of these pods. Such regulations are in place in order to ensure the safety of the students and to guarantee a basic level of competence for their caregivers. This is accomplished through rigorous background checks, health screenings and training sessions. Unfortunately many of such learning pods don't follow any of these regulations which may potentially compromise the safety of their students and will face dire consequences from the state authorities as the result.

In terms of entertaining, I’m generally opposed to screen time usage, as is the American Academy of pediatricians for children 18 months old and under. This would apply to TV screens, phones, tablets, and so on.

Although I completely understand the need to pop the tablet once in a while for your child, especially if you have more than one and need to work from home! As tempting as it may be, there are other alternatives to virtual learning for infants and toddlers. I highly recommend investing in a mommy’s helper, nanny or even a trained early childhood professional that can come to your home for sessions with your child. If the exposure to COVID-19 is one of your concerns and you truly don’t want to take your child to a Daycare or nursery then your best bet is to adapt your personal schedule to educate and nurture your child yourself. To learn more about how to work from home with a baby or a toddler then visit this blog.

In conclusion, I understand that these are challenging times for all of us, but we have to adapt in order to continue thriving. Our children will catch up with whatever academics they might “fall behind” this year as teachers and other education professionals are trained to help children “catch up” when they enter a classroom under different circumstances than their peers. In other words, don’t worry about putting too much pressure on your child academically. They can always learn new concepts as long as their brains are ready for learning. Teachers and Educators are trained to help your child achieve this, but unfortunately when our brains go through trauma, stress, constant state of alertness and uncertainty, then our ability to learn is negatively impacted. Just think of it this way. It is more challenging to teach a child who can’t focus because they don’t feel safe than one who might not understand a concept yet but is happy and eager to learn. Instead, I highly recommend to make sure your child's brain is going through as many positive and nurturing experiences as possible. Make sure to enjoy the extra family time, the opportunity to create meaningful connections with your little ones, especially if you were unable to see them in the past until it was dinner or even bedtime. Enjoy these special moments. In the end, isn't that what life is about? Sometimes its also just a matter of your own perspective. You can be “trapped in your apartment” or you can be “safely in your home”. Our words and how we explain, model and express situations to our children can literally change the way they see the world forever.

Good luck and know that you are not alone.

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