Education

4 Ways to Help Kids Mentally Prepare for a New School Year

Everyone will need time to adjust, said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente

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Navigating the start of a new school year during a pandemic can be challenging, but doctors say there are simple things parents can start doing right now to help their kids adjust.

For some, the pandemic is sparking anxiety about the unknown as kids head back to school. Others are looking forward to a fresh start and the opportunity for in-person learning.

Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, says it can take weeks for students to adjust.

"Everyone is coming back into school, teachers included, having some anxiety, some worry, some need for adjustment," Dr. Patton-Smith said.

This school year will be unlike any other, with many students going from virtual and hybrid learning back to in-person classes, five days a week. But change takes time.

"I usually say a two to six week period on average, although each child is different," Dr. Patton-Smith said.

First, she says, focus on sleep. Kids and teens need at least 8 to 9 hours of shut-eye. Now is the time to start pushing back the alarm clock, not the day before school — especially for teenagers.

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"The plan is to begin pushing back the bed time by an hour each day," she said.

Second, look at your child's nutrition, establishing consistent meal times while sharing as many meals together as a family.

"Three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, ideally, eating as a family at the dinner time is extremely important," Dr. Patton-Smith said.

"You can start that process of ideally eating together, talking together and trying to continue that throughout the school year as much as possible," she said.

Parents and caregivers can also model healthy eating habits at home to help children who may have gained weight during the pandemic.

And when it comes to mental health, Dr. Patton Smith says to talk to your child about expectations for the new school year, and address any concerns or fears. She tells parents to keep questions open-ended:

"How do you feel about the school year? What concerns do you have about the school year, and being able to just listen as to what answers are provided. Parents may be surprised [that] kids, a lot of kids, are super excited about starting school, a new school year in person, a fresh start. But some are understandably very anxious and nervous about it," she said.

Dr. Patton Smith says said parents should navigate this time with empathy, while paying special attention to certain students, especially those going into a new school environment or a new school building for the first time.

"Those that are moving into elementary school, whether they be kindergartners or first graders, those that are moving into middle school, depending on what grade middle school starts — it depends on the county — and then those that are moving into high school, which are 9th and 10th graders, because for those groups, it's a new start with the in-person space," she said.

And, if your child is struggling, reach out for help. A teacher or a pediatrician is a good place to start.

Dr. Patton Smith says playdates are also a good way to help reintroduce kids to group activities and social interaction, easing the transition back to school. It can also be done safely outdoors while the weather is still warm.

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