As we start a new school year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused much stress and uncertainty for students, parents, teachers and staff members.
“For students and the adults who care for them, the desire is so strong to have our lives return to normal, which also involves schooling,” said Craig Sawchuk, a Mayo Clinic psychologist. “School is one of the most important places that we learn and grow intellectually, socially and emotionally.”
Whether classes meet in person, online or use a hybrid approach, one thing is certain: Mental health is a vital part of the equation, he said. To work on a healthy mind-set for this school year, focus on the 4 Be’s:
Be flexible. Stay open to the possibility that the format of schooling might change over the course of the year.
Be optimistic. Maintain a positive attitude about learning new ways to learn.
Be supportive. Contribute to keeping the learning environment as safe as possible by practicing social distancing, masking and proper hand hygiene.
Be kind. Be patient with each other as everyone works toward a common goal of ending the pandemic.
As schools determine their approaches, students will need varying behavioral health support based on their age and the class format, Sawchuk said.
For in-person schooling
Elementary school students might not fully understand why all the health and safety practices are happening. “Parents and teachers, this is one more example of when modeling safe practices and answering questions patiently and calmly will offer reassurance to the young people in your life,” Sawchuk said.
Middle school, high school and college students might find their emotions vary between excitement and anxiety. “It’s OK to not feel OK during these pandemic times, and teens and older students may need to hear that affirmed by the adults in their lives,” suggested Sawchuk.
One way to challenge worry at any age is by focusing on other possible outcomes and on steps to minimize exposure to risk, “Seek out information from reliable sources,” he said.
For remote schooling
While it is still important to have structure if the school day is online, it is OK to have some flexibility with the schedule, especially for younger children, Sawchuk said.
Many children will adapt to a virtual learning format, but some might struggle with keeping up with homework, organizing tasks and being able to stay focused for extended periods. “Open lines of communication between families and teachers are always useful, but routine communication is especially key in our current situation to help identify and problem-solve ways the learning content or approach can adjust to the student’s individual needs,” Sawchuk said.
Feelings of isolation and being disconnected from peer groups are common concerns for students attending school online. It is important to encourage and plan ways to socialize with friends in a safe manner outside of school-related activities, he said.
For hybrid schooling
Changes in daily routines — being in school one day and home the next — can be a challenge for children and adults. One simple but effective tip is to post a master daily schedule in a common area of the home, such as the kitchen.
“That can help keep everyone on track on a day-to-day basis,” Sawchuk said. The experience will help give you feedback on which learning formats are working well and those that can be improved.
“No matter the model, be encouraging of your school’s and teachers’ efforts, as they, too, aim to make the school year as successful and safe as possible for everyone,” he encouraged.’
Maintain a normal daily routine. Aim to wake up and go to bed as close as you can to the same times each day. Stay hydrated, try to keep up with a healthy diet and focus on increasing physical activity during the day. A healthy body helps maintain a healthy mood and mind-set.
Learn new skills to manage stress. Explore how relaxation, mindfulness or yoga can calm the mind. Several free classes and mental health apps are online.
Stay connected with healthy support in your life. While these social connections may be more virtual now, being around those you care about is important to well-being.
Some people might struggle with more significant mental health difficulties, and Sawchuk encourages those who need help to talk to their primary care provider to locate local mental health resources.
“Effective treatments for mental health conditions do exist,” he said. “Please reach out for help, if needed.”