Child Psychiatrist Addresses How to Ease Anxiety for Kids Returning to In-Person Learning

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08/20/2021

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The next round of students in the DMV will take their seats in the classroom Monday.

It's the first time many have spent five days a week inside of a classroom in more than a year and a half which could produce anxiety for students and their parents.

"We have to make sure that we're not allowing our own anxiety to affect our kids, so a lot of times what I hear from parents is a lot of anxiety, but when I talk to the kid, it's sometimes not the same as what the parents think because they're looking through their parent lens and not the kid lens," said Dr. Asha Patton Smith, a child, and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente.

Smith tells 7News On Your Side that if your child is anxious, there are four things that can help with easing them back into the school routine: sleep, nutrition, understanding that transition takes time, and asking for help from a pediatrician or school counselor if their child isn't adjusting.

She said the following about the key elements to help children succeed:

SLEEP

"Most kids need about 8-12 hours of sleep each night. Teenagers need that 10-12, so that upper limit of an average amount of sleep," she said. "It's very challenging and like I said, our schedule, in general, doesn't support that, but that doesn't mean that's not the need and so sometimes when we're seeing kids that are having difficulty with anxiety, depression, the big one that I see is issues with focus and concentration, sometimes it can be due to a decrease or a lack of the optimal amount of sleep," she said. She also included that naps also contribute to the total time.

NUTRITION

"For a lot of kids that weren't in a full-time learning environment, their eating schedule was much different. They weren't eating breakfast around the same time every day. They may or may not have lunch, so it's important to have kids get that three times a day nutrition -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner with breakfast being extremely important prior to the start of the school day and if at all possible, having families be able to eat together during dinnertime is amazing," Smith said.

UNDERSTANDING TRANSITIONS

"On average, it takes about 2-6 weeks of transition for most kids and so that is something to kind of keep in mind as a parent and as a kid. Parents and kids need to give themselves grace and understanding as they're moving through this process," she said.

ASKING FOR HELP

"If kids are not themselves for whatever reason -- sleeping too much, eating too much, eating too little, sleeping too little, irritable, trying to avoid school-- that may be time to ask for help. Talking to a pediatrician or school counselor or in behavioral health talk to a behavioral health provider, because those are some signs that your child may be struggling a little bit more than you're aware of," Smith said.

There's also a concern that once kids do get into a rhythm, the virus might cause school plans to change.

The superintendent for Stafford County Public Schools already sent a letter to parents explaining a return to virtual learning is a possibility if COVID-19 cases continue to rise. Dr. Asha Patton Smith says preparing kids for the unexpected can also help reduce anxiety.

"If we expect that we're going in a certain direction, and it may or may not have to temporarily change, that can decrease some of the anxiety and talk about what that may or may not look like," Smith said.

She added role-playing can also be a great way for kids to express their concerns and have practical solutions for how to address them.

Kaiser Permanente also has several resources to help families, teachers, and school administrators on their return to the classroom like a playbook to support health in schools and the Thriving Schools website has a number of toolkits, e-learning, webinars, and articles on school health.

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