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Helping kids handle back-to-school anxiety amid COVID-19

Parents: You set the tone for kids. Welcome to our new weekly series: 'Start smart. Stay smart.'

CLEVELAND — Back to school time can bring some anxiety, even among the most confident kids. But in 2020, we are in uncharted territory as parents weigh education options along with keeping their kids safe.

So, parents, how do we help kids manage and navigate fears during a time that’s unlike anything we’ve encountered before? It’s the first topic in our brand-new weekly series on Go! known as "Start smart. Stay Smart."

Usually, it’s new faces, a change in routine and unfamiliar teachers that might cause kids to experience those back-to-school jitters. This year, though, it’s a new set of worries for kids as they return to school for the first time in five months.

“I’m nervous that I might go near a kid, and that kid has COVID,” said Padraig Moses, who will start 5th grade at the end of August. His worry is top-of-mind for many children, and certainly many parents, too.

So how do we help our kids handle fears and anxiety as we approach the start of a new school year?

Credit: The Moses Family
Padraig Moses will start 5th grade at the end of August. It's been 5 months since he has stepped inside school. He does have some concerns about COVID-19 but is also anxious to see friends.

We got together a group of five kids: Padraig, D’mari, Bianca, as well as siblings Uelle and Uriah, to talk about what’s on their mind, and the mixed emotions they are feeling.

D’mari McGill still isn’t sure if he will go back into the classroom, or if he will continue to learn from home. The soon-to-be 6th grader admits, he’s conflicted.

“Happy and sad," he said. "I still want to go back to school. But at the same time, if I’m sick, I wouldn’t want to get other people sick."

He’s one of five people living in his home, and he worries about the rest of his family.

Credit: Candice McGill
D'mari McGill dreams of becoming an architect. He says his grandmother wears a mask for her job, and if she can wear one all day, he can too.

Bianca Craig is thinking about how school might look different this fall.

“I am not going to be able to sit at the same table as my friends," she said. "We are going to have to be really far apart."

These are common, realistic concerns, according to Dr. David Miller, a pediatric physician with UH Connor Integrative Health Network. Dr. Miller specializes in helping children with anxiety and building that resilience we all need.

“We really set the tone for the kids. They are young and have never had this experience before. They don’t fully understand that we’ve never had this experience either. And so, we want to reassure them that a lot of very smart people are working hard to make this as safe for them as possible."

Safety precautions the kids say they’ve all talked about at home.

“We are going to wear masks,” said Uelle Bishop, who is going into 5th grade. 

Big brother, Uriah, is heading into 7th grade, and shared even a little more information about safety precautions at his school.

Credit: The Bishop Family
Uriah and Uelle Bishop will start 7th and 5th grade respectively next month. The siblings talked about safety measures in place at school and all the people working hard to keep them healthy. They are excited to go back to school.

“I know we are going to have to wear a mask most of the time. And I heard that the school I am going to, they are going to have shields around some desks."

Padraig heard classrooms may be moved around a bit to create a little more space. 

“Teachers are going to make new classrooms, maybe have some kids in the cafeteria to make room and stuff like that.”

Parents, Dr. Miller says this is our chance to be proactive leading up to the start of school. For example, when it comes to wearing masks, have kids work on wearing them for longer periods of time. Make them a fun, fashion accessory with fabric showing school spirit, or love for animals, sports or favorite character. Lastly, remind kids that they are part of a team in which all of us play a role to keep others safe.

“Many kids are inherently benevolent and interested in other people’s well-being. And while they may not want to wear a mask for an extended period of time, that will help give them the motivation to do so. Shifting the focus to ‘How I can help everybody be as safe as possible' ends up being very empowering for the kids."

Credit: Marcie Craig
Bianca Craig would rather focus on her love of math and science at school, and not have to think about the virus. She has her sights set on becoming an astronaut one day.

What’s also empowering is talking about any concerns that might come up, and practicing ways that kids can deal with them.

“I think you want to have a plan for specific fears when they come up, if you can,” he said.

One other important piece of advice Dr. Miller shared is something recommended every year -- but this year, it’s even more important: Getting rest, eating right and cutting back on screen time now. It will go a long way in helping kids get in the right frame of mind so they can focus on things that are truly important.

“I’m looking forward to sports and learning more math,” Uriah said about his hopes for 7th grade. 

Bianca has big hopes and dreams, too.

“I really like math and science because when I’m older my goal is to be an astronaut.”

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