Talk openly to your kids about school and the pandemic, experts say

Students need information and practice to return to school with a positive mindset, according to child psychologists.
Students wearing masks take their seats in this image from a Pinellas County Schools video showing how classrooms could look when K-12 campuses reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say parents should talk honestly to their children about difficulties they may face when returning to school this year.
Students wearing masks take their seats in this image from a Pinellas County Schools video showing how classrooms could look when K-12 campuses reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say parents should talk honestly to their children about difficulties they may face when returning to school this year. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020|Updated Aug. 5, 2020

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

The return to school will have a different look and feel this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages on in Florida, and experts say the adjustments in store could prove difficult for children to adopt and understand.

While some are eager to return, other students are dreading the unknowns ahead, child mental health experts say. Some are afraid of the virus and even those who know less about it are realizing they won’t be able to interact with friends the same way they used to.

School districts in Tampa Bay are requiring everyone on campus to wear masks for most of the day. They’re also planning new, socially distanced ways of riding the bus, learning and playing aimed at preventing spread of the virus.

Dr. Maribel Del Rio-Roberts
Dr. Maribel Del Rio-Roberts [ Nova Southeastern University ]

The changes might be confusing at first, especially for elementary students, said Dr. Maribel Del Rio-Roberts, a licensed Florida psychologist and associate professor at Nova Southeastern University. So it’s important that parents and guardians begin preparing them now.

“Provide them with concrete information,” she said. “Reassure them, not dismissing their concerns or questions, but normalizing that, yes, this is different and it might be a little difficult.”

A good way to start is by asking children to share their thoughts on the virus and to ask about any questions they have, said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Their responses will give adults an understanding of what a child already knows, as well as what gaps they need filled in.

“Ask them very openly, ‘What are you excited about?,‘” she said. “‘What are you nervous about? Is there anything you want me to know the answer to before you go to school?‘”

Parents should explain the pandemic in an age-appropriate way but also make the seriousness of COVID-19 clear, Del Rio-Roberts said. Kids should know how important it is to heed teachers’ directions to social distance, wash hands and wear masks, so less of the burden falls on educators.

They should be given alternatives for normal interactions, like hugging and playing closely with classmates, that are no longer safe, Del Rio-Roberts added. Tell them: “Although we know you love your friends and you miss your friends and you would love to show them how much you miss them ... it might be a better idea for now if we just wave at each other for now to say hello, or write a little note.”

There are plenty of resources online that offer visual aids, like cartoons and drawings, to help parents explain the changes happening around their children. Del Rio-Roberts recommends the Child Development Center, a Montana nonprofit that supports children who have developmental delays and disabilities, which offers digital picture stories related to the pandemic.

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Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein [Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]
Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein [Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]

At All Children’s, Katzenstein has seen a 20- to 30-percent increase in the number of children needing behavioral health services since the pandemic forced local schools to move online in the spring. She expects that trend to continue as the school year starts, noting that academic demands could add to the stress kids are already feeling.

“There is anxiety and uncertainty about what’s going to happen and when things are going to get better,” Del Rio-Roberts said. “There are already so many things for children that are out of their control, and this is another thing that is even out of the control of adults in their life.”

Though the virus is serious, Katzenstein said it’s important that adults don’t make children feel like safety protocols are hard rules, or that they will get in trouble if they mess up. Students should instead be encouraged and shown how following health recommendations is a way to care for themselves and others.

“Say to them, ‘Mom and dad and teachers and all the adults are here to keep you safe, and one of the ways we can keep you and everyone else safe from the germs that are around us are by doing these little things,‘” she said.

Parts of preparing children for school in a pandemic can be made fun, Katzenstein said. She encourages parents to let kids pick out their own masks and to use casual language — “keep an alligator between you and anyone else” — to encourage social distancing.

Adults also can create games to practice wearing masks with their children, Del Rio-Roberts added. “We are going to try and keep our masks on today for 30 minutes,” a parent could tell their child, then follow up with a conversation about why it’s important to wear a mask, she said.

The more parents talk with their kids before the start of school, the better students will be able to adjust when they arrive on campus, Katzenstein said. The biggest obstacle is the unknown, so the more information they get ahead of time, the less afraid they have to be.

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FREE ADVICE: Nine tips for starting school during a pandemic

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage