Child psychiatrist helps parents deal with unknowns as kids return to school

Back to school

MADISON, Wis.  — The first day of school can be nerve-wracking as it is. Add on a pandemic and returning to in-person learning for the first time in a year and a half, anxiety levels increase.

UW Health Physician and Child Psychiatrist Marcia Slattery said these feelings are normal for any student or parent to have.

“We’ve essentially lived in a bubble for the last year and a half, particularly for school,” Slattery said. “So there are significant changes that kids are going to need to adapt to in addition to new school.”

Slattery said many uncertainties are more typical with the start of a new school year like kids asking, ‘Who are my teachers? Am I going to be able to find all my classes? What happens if I forget my locker combination? Or forget something at home?’. With the ongoing pandemic and the different rules now in place for mask-wearing and vaccination status, those questions can shift to, ‘What if I get sick? What will happen if my friends aren’t vaccinated or don’t wear a mask around me and they’re sick?’

Slattery recommends that parents should have ongoing conversations with their kids as they transition back to in-person learning.

“We can work with these kids and the parents, especially, to say, ‘How can we take some of those uncertainties and decrease them so you feel more prepared?”

Slattery said keeping a positive mind is important for adults to pass on to the students so they can focus on learning rather than the other nuances.

“Know what the rules of your school are. Really just communicate that to the kids. This is the rule of your school and what we need to do, and not get into the parents and what they may feel is one way appropriate or another,” Slattery said. “Keep that out of the classroom and let your kid focus on being in the classroom.”

Slattery also recommends that parents should help their kids come up with good things to say to other students or teachers if they are questioned or treated differently based on their vaccination status or choice of wearing a mask.

“Help the child be prepared about what could I say in that situation so they’re not caught off guard,” she said.

Slattery said your child should also be aware of school resources available to them if they need someone to talk to during the school day.

The Madison Metropolitan School District added a number of resources this year to help students with whatever they may need.

“We added additional social workers. We have been talking about social, emotional and mental health not only for our students but also our staff, we realize the toll this has had on all of us,” said MMSD Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins.

Slattery said when all is said and done, “Give it some time. We’ve been in a pandemic for over a year and a half. While kids are resilient, give them some time to adapt.”