Commentary: How schools can help make children’s return successful

By Jill Linden

Following the school shutdown due to COVID-19, I think that there will be more anxious and misbehaving children this school year than expected. Based on my 45 years working as a psychologist with children, their families and their schools, the following ideas and suggestions for schools will hopefully help prevent or minimize some of these problems.

Teachers and administrators will have to do a lot more work than in previous years to prepare well for the upcoming school year. They may not know until close to school reopening what state COVID-19 safety mandates will be in place, but they have had to start preparing anyway. They must plan for multiple possibilities – both for when school opens and for changes later.

Brooke Schultz, reporter for the Delaware State News, has been covering the Health and Wellness Group meetings of the state Board of Education. This group has been discussing the physical and mental health needs of returning schoolchildren. This commentary will expand the suggestions they have made and will be more specific about the mental health problems likely to be shown by returning students, and what can be done to prevent and deal with them.

Jill Linden

It is unlikely that a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 or a drug to treat it reliably will be ready to use in September. We will need to know more regarding virus transmission from symptom-free people. All of this means that anxiety will still be high for most people – adults and children – in September.

School systems are facing a very difficult school year. For most, increased services will be needed without enough funding to provide them.

Tough decisions will have to be made about masks, cleaning and social distancing. Which schools get which teachers, as well as personnel like counselors and cleaning staff, must also be decided. Staff assigned to schools in high-risk areas may have to choose between constant anxiety and loss of jobs.

Central office administrators should spend as much time as possible at schools the first few weeks. That will help them act quickly when more support is needed for personnel. Many schools will need additional staff or other resources.

The issue of wearing masks is a complicated one. Some teachers will be comfortable without a mask when they are close to children. Others, especially those who teach children from high-risk families, may want to wear masks. Rules about masks may be state-mandated or may be left to school districts, schools or teachers.

About a month before school starts, a letter in the parents’ primary language should be sent to them. The letter should explain what the child should expect at school this year that will be different than usual. That might include using masks and physical barriers, increased cleaning, social distancing and decreased physical contact.

School systems might want to offer training to staff in August about specific emotional and behavior problems they might expect in this year’s classes. Teachers should know ways to prevent such problems and how to deal with them when they occur.

Since uncertainty can be a major cause of anxiety, what can help are knowledge, predictability, familiarity and structure.

If children are going back to the same classroom they were in before schools closed, that room should look as much as possible as it did when they left. If practical, children should have at least one teaching staff member whom they already know.

Children who are put into the next grade may have difficulty understanding their schoolwork. Many did not get the home instruction that would have prepared them for the next grade. Repeating some of the schoolwork they had before they left will be helpful for many children.

New curriculum materials will need to be prepared for the first week of school. Teachers should discuss COVID-19 on the first day of school, giving brief, simple information tailored to the age of the children. They can always add more later. They should explain the precautions being taken to keep the children safe at school.

Children will likely have many questions about COVID-19. Before giving specific scientific information, teachers should try to find out the child’s particular concern. It may be catching the virus, or it may be for a parent working in a high-risk job.

Because of possible transmission of the virus from people who show no symptoms, many teachers will understandably be uncomfortable being close to children. Some children will conclude that the teacher doesn’t like them. To prevent this, teachers should explain the situation, on a level that their class can understand. Teachers might want to develop a special hand sign for their pupils that communicates, “I like you and am thinking of you.” This would be particularly relevant if the teacher is wearing a mask, meaning her smile can’t be seen.

Teachers should assume that most children will be anxious about the uncertainties in their lives and fearful about COVID-19. These feelings may show themselves in different ways. We would expect anxious children to cry or withdraw. They may also be squirmy or inattentive. They may appear to be hyperactive when the cause is really anxiety.

Some anxious children will not even try to do their work. They may seem oppositional when the cause is anxiety. Children may get upset or cry over what seems like a very minor matter. The underlying worry has them on edge, so it takes very little to put them over the edge.

Fearful children may act tough. They want to prove (to themselves and others) that they’re not really afraid.

Most children who have been out of school for months have not been required to sit still as much as they will need to at school. Even when they sit still at home while watching TV or using a computer, they can move around if they want. At school, it should help to allow more moving-around breaks at first and gradually increase the time that children are required to sit still. They should not be labelled as misbehaving or hyperactive during this time.

Some children will tease or bully others about the virus. For example, they might say that their parent is sick and then repeatedly get too close to another child, saying, “I’m gonna make you sick.” Most teachers already have procedures for teasing and bullying for situations such as this.

Jill Linden, Ph.D., is a retired child psychologist and school consultant.