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Helping kids safely back to school

Missing out on school experience is particularly detrimental for the very young, who rely on in-person learning and struggle without that interaction .

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As schools reopen in September, parents and kids are no doubt experiencing mixed emotions. Students, parents and school staff are facing a scenario of uncertainty and fear that is real and self-perpetuating.

Having a scared and anxious support network makes you more vulnerable as you now don’t have a sounding board to normalize your concerns. And parents’ worries have increased manifold with their children returning to school in a few weeks.

When schools closed, children lost their peer support and the essential structure to their days many relied upon and which was crucial to their overall development.

Missing out on the school experience is particularly detrimental for the very young who rely on in-person learning and struggle without that interaction.

Young children learn through experience, which means that peer influence is crucial at this stage. Many children have lost all this and more by missing out on their preschool experience and thus entering kindergarten devoid of this learning experience. Social interaction and collaborative play enhance children’s cognitive development.

Parents, no doubt, want their children to be emotionally strong and resilient, not only to beat their anxiety about going to school but also to stay upbeat. In other words, they want them to have emotional intelligence, be aware and express their feelings in a socially appropriate manner and understand and empathize with other people’s emotions and thoughts.

Yet, parents also know all too well that this is difficult, and may find it almost impossible to talk with their children. Even at their best, children get distracted with things which they view as more important and which they want to accomplish right away.

Psychologist Jean Piaget has said that young children learn best through play, so here are some suggestions to help get children through their initial fears.

In the red light, green light game, you can ask your child to freeze when they hear “red light,” and hold that pose as long as you look at them. There are no wrong or right positions. You can play this game whenever you find your child stressed, talking about the COVID-19 or going to school. Your child should associate the freeze position as an opportunity to pause and think, thereby disconnecting themselves from their current stress. Gradually, using successive approximation or rewarding your child’s small steps towards staying calm can help in their emotional regulation and impulse control.

You can build on this learning experience with the Wax Museum game where a group can pose as statues with happy, sad, fearful and angry facial expressions. In this game, you can also include other emotions of excitement and frustration.

Identifying and labelling feelings can lead to self-empowerment. Strong emotions can be scary for children, and expressing those feelings leads to emotional self-regulation. It means fewer meltdowns and avoidant behaviours, like school refusals. On a positive note, it can result in a sound sleep, a healthy appetite, better concentration and more learning experiences.

By creating awareness in your child about self-emotional regulation, you can have an open dialogue with them. This can help parents as well as avoid over-parenting, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety. Hopefully, going into kindergarten in the pandemic will be a smoother transition and a much-needed solace for the whole family.

This article was published in The Times and Transcript and The Miramichi Leader.

Image is from Unsplash, courtesy United Nations

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