Returning to in-person learning is a transition that sparks a wide range of emotions for students and families, from excitement and happiness to apprehension and anxiety. For families, it can be hard to evaluate and navigate your child’s emotions, especially if they are reluctant to open up and share them with you.
Knowing that this school year could present unique challenges for students’ mental health, we asked our KIPP New Jersey team of social workers in Camden and Newark to share some helpful tips and recommendations to help support your child’s social and emotional wellness.
- Practice mindfulness with your child. Kelsie Patton, a social worker at KIPP Lanning Square Primary, points out that, like adults, children store trauma and stress within their bodies before they can verbalize those feelings. “In order to connect children’s emotional well-being to their physical bodies, we practice different kid-friendly meditations like yoga, quick-deep breathing exercises, or short meditations,” said Patton. “I have them place their hand on their heart, close their eyes and take deep breaths, noticing how their chest feels during repetitive breathing exercises,” she added. Patton also recommends families with younger children have their students place an object like a toy or stuffed animal on their chest or belly and watch it rise and fall as they breathe.
- Develop and talk through routines. Routines and structure promote predictability and feelings of safety for children. Tim Massaquoi, a social worker at KIPP High School in Camden, emphasized that students can take longer to re-enter routines than adults, so for many, this school year might feel like starting over, even for older students. “Understand that our students are coming back to a new routine. Work with your child to establish a daily routine that works for your family and helps them balance a social life with academics.” KIPP Truth Academy social worker Stephanie Bailey recommends that families develop morning, evening, and nighttime routines to build safety and reduce anxiety.
- Discuss and validate your child’s emotions. Your child may be feeling a wide range of emotions as they return to school. It can be hard for many children to understand or name their emotions, talking through your child’s emotions can help. Sheyla Riaz, KIPP New Jersey’s director of social work says, “Kids will have a range of feelings – big and small. Listening and validating will communicate that we are listening without judgment.” Riaz also recommends that adults actively listen to their kids, rather than filling silence or judging, simply listen and validate.
- Notice your child’s eating, sleep and technology habits. When children experience stress or worry, it often shows up first in your child’s eating or sleeping habits. If your child is eating less than normal or having a hard time falling and staying asleep, it may be due to an underlying emotional issue. Beyond emotional stress, Massaquoi also emphasizes the role that diet and sleep play in maintaining energy throughout the day. “Eating well and rest are important,” Massaquoi says, “so when they come to school, they have the energy to sustain a long day.” Patton added that families should keep an eye on their child’s social media usage. “Children have a difficult time monitoring and limiting their social media usage, so creating other avenues for a child to express themselves could promote positive social and emotional learning,” said Patton.
- Lead by example. The most impactful way to support your family’s social and emotional wellness is by modeling open communication, engaging in self care and leveraging community supports. As part of the school community, social workers are available to support you and your child navigate through the transition into the new school year. Bailey points out that social workers are not just a support for students. “For parents, if they are having a difficult time, I would encourage them to reach out to a social worker. We’re here for our families as well. We have those resources,” she said.
For more resources to use at home, Riaz recommends the Child Mind Institute, which has excellent online materials related to emotional wellness. Additionally, the KIPP New Jersey Wellness Space Site is a hub with mental health tools promoting self-care.