Sentinel photo by BRIAN COX Chalk messages on the sidewalk from staff and faculty await the return of students at Lewistown Elementary School. The first day of school is scheduled for Tuesday in the Mifflin County School District.
LEWISTOWN The new school year is approaching and with it many changes to accommodate the safety of students, faculty and staff. This deviation from the norm can produce concerns in both students and parents.
Geisinger Pediatrician, Dr. William Gianfagna has some advice to help make the return to class easier and quell any worries that parents and students may have.
Gianfagna says just about everyone has some anxiety when it comes to COVID-19.
I tell younger children and teens that anxiety is a voice inside you that can play tricks on your body, that is the voice of anxiety can make you feel shaky, or sweat more or make it hard for you to breath at times or make you feel like your heart is beating faster than it should, Gianfagna said. The good news is that there are ways to learn how to make that voice much quieter by focusing on something pleasurable or by deep breathing or visualizing a calm and peaceful place.
Gianfagna says to accomplish these techniques will take practice and to perform these exercises while you are not anxious.
There are some free apps available such as Mind Shift, COVID Coach and Calm that provide different types of practice sessions for youth and adults. Gianfagna says a child psychologist or pediatrician can help parents and children to use these techniques as well.
Children may worry about themselves, their family, and friends getting ill with COVID-19. Parents, family members, school staff and other trusted adults can play an important role in helping children make sense of what they hear in a way that is honest, accurate, and minimizes anxiety or fear, Gianfagna said.
Gianfagna suggests adults should ask their children different questions about COVID-19 such as What do you know about the virus? What have you seen on the internet or from friends talking about the virus? or What worries you the most about the virus? to get an idea of their stance on the virus and what concerns they may have.
Let them know how you feel too and what you are doing to be safe and to keep them safe, Gianfagna said. Children adapt easily in most cases, however, parents should always monitor and keep a tab on how they are feeling. Prioritizing making your child feel heard, safe and loved right now can really go a long way.
Gianfagna also says that certain behaviors such as children wetting themselves at night or during the day, changes in appetite and sleep habits, whining, demands for more hugs and clinginess could be signs that things dont seem right or OK to your child.
Reminding your child that youre there to protect them and showing them things, they can do to help like handwashing can help provide the reassurance they need, Gianfagna said.
Some students will need more help than others. A child may be in a household that experienced economic devastation; they may have lost a family member to COVID-19; or they may have added layers of stress related to issues around social unrest, Gianfagna said. Anxiety and depression also can manifest as aggression, irritability, avoidance or shutting down at home. Reach out to a school counselor or outside mental health provider if your child is unusually clingy or fearful, requires excessive reassurance, complains of headaches or other physical symptoms, exhibits major changes in sleeping or eating habits or loses interest in activities they used to enjoy.
Gianfagna says its important for parents to be the best parents they can be right now and not try to be the perfect parent.
These are unusual times and now, more than ever, its important to be gentle with yourself. Try to let go of the ideal you think you should be and instead, focus on just being there for your child. Gianfagna said.
Gianfagna suggests partnering with the school to meet your childrens needs and to monitor school communications as plans evolve. Prepare your children for what school will look like and what procedures the school and classrooms will have in place. Also, make sure the students know how and where to get support.
Gianfagna says its good to partner with the school for students who are taking part in distance learning as well. Parents should ask the school for advice on distance learning. Gianfagna says its helpful to talk to your children about their needs and responsibilities as they learn from home.
Distance learning amplifies all the worries parents have about screen time. How much time should children be spending in front of their laptops now? A lot of parents want to know Are you doing homework or are you playing games? Divide time for work and play children need socializing work with a group of friends and organize get-togethers in small groups while practicing guidelines. Dr. Gianfagna said.
Exercise can be important in helping students cope with the stress and anxiety of returning to school.
Exercise or any type of physical activation as it is called, is so important for mental health that our psychologists use it as one of the primary treatments for patients who are depressed or anxious. Gianfagna said, This is important for you and your kids. Whether it be an at-home fitness class or a daily walk around the neighborhood, can do wonders for our bodies and minds. In fact, spending time outside has been shown to lower stress and regulate body rhythms. A well-balanced diet is key for maintaining energy levels and helping our immune systems stay in tip-top shape.
Gianfagna recommends asking your doctor if you have any questions about your childs ability to exercise safely and to also consider low-impact forms of exercise. Exercise of any kind can help boost and support the immune system and can be a tool for managing anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness, which can be defined as present moment awareness, has been growing in popularity more and more each year, and now is a great time to try it out for older children, Gianfagna said. Just five minutes of meditation each day can help them reset their mind and perspective. Meditation and breathing exercises can help to slow heart rate down and clear the mind. When practiced regularly, it can buffer the effects of stress, which helps support immune system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The American Academy of Pediatrics (healthychildren.org) have recommendations to help adults have conversations with their children about COVID-19 and ways they can avoid getting and spreading the virus.
Here are some tips for talking to your children about COVID-19 and returning to school:
Remain calm. Remember that children will react to both what you say and how you say it. They will pick up cues from the conversations you have with them and with others.
Reassure children that they are safe. Let them know it is OK if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you. Monitor for other signs of anxiety. Every child shows stress and worry differently, and may not have the verbal ability to say what they are feeling. Yet, you may notice changes in their behavior or actions that concern you.
Make yourself available to listen and to talk. Let children know they can come to you when they have questions. Respond to what they are expressing. Simple reassurance may be all they need, rather than a long answer that was not what they wanted to know.
Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.
Monitor your childs media. Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio or online. Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.
Provide information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Talk to children about how some stories on COVID-19 on the internet and social media may be based on rumors and inaccurate information. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
Be a good role model and teacher. Also, give children control. Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Being a germ fighter is very empowering, like having a super power! Kids can help lessen the spread of germs by washing their hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and throwing away used tissues and washing hands afterward. Remind children to wash their hands frequently and stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing or sick. Also, remind them to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, then throw the tissue into the trash.
If school is open, discuss any new actions that may be taken at school to help protect children and school staff.
If you are uncertain or concerned, reach out to your childs primary care physician. Pediatricians want to hear from families and be a resource to them during these trying times.
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