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Teach Your Children Well

The 2020-2021 school year has officially ended at schools across the country, and we are heading into another season of mixed thoughts and emotions. Just as has been the case in the past year of the COVID pandemic, that will mean different things to different people and families.

While we are eager to put the pandemic behind us, the reality is that it’s far from over. As summer begins, we have an opportunity to assess what we have learned over the past year and take steps to put some changes into action.

Individual View

Parents of kids in the under 12 crowd, or those who have a family member who is unable to be vaccinated, may be grappling with summer plans. Some elementary schools made the change this week that kids can be unmasked outdoors and policies at summer camps will vary. While many families are thrilled to shed the outdoor masks this summer, there are many individuals who will experience anxiety about returning to unmasked activities.

For children experiencing anxiety as they return to activities, it can be helpful to provide space for them to share their fears or uncertainty. Take extra time to acknowledge and validate whatever feelings emerge. Demonstrate empathy by acknowledging that there has been a lot to deal with over the past year and a half and kids are entitled to all their emotions. Plan for how you want to approach situations that feel new again.

While in-person learning is always preferable, some students found a reprieve from social anxiety, bullying, microaggressions, or racism they previously experienced at school. Talking about what felt comfortable or worked during the year, as well as what didn’t, can help prepare for the next academic year. Consider how your expectations may be different from those of your children. Explore how you can support them by asking what they need to feel motivated and safe.

Growth Mindset

The concept of growth mindset, developed by Carol Dweck, PhD, describes how we face challenges and setbacks. Dr. Dweck’s studies found that kids who pushed through challenges believed they could improve. Kids who pulled back from challenges believed their abilities couldn’t improve (referred to as fixed mindset).

Growth mindset can help kids (and their families) reframe how they approach challenges. When a child says they are not good at something or it’s too hard, we can reframe the statement by adding the word “yet.” “You don’t know how to do that yet.” Utilizing a growth mindset when children make a mistake, we can respond: “We’ll do better next time.”

Modeling Good Behavior

The CDC is currently recommending that unvaccinated individuals (including children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine) continue to wear masks indoors and in outdoor crowds. If we are asking children to wear a mask, it’s worth considering for parents to continue to wear their masks as well. Children follow the lead of the adults they see around them. Modeling desired behavior can make it easier for children to continue wearing masks until it’s their turn to be vaccinated.

Be Curious

Every family is making decisions that work for them this summer and we can all benefit from seeking to understand more about one another’s experiences. One way to do that is approaching challenges and interpersonal relationships with curiosity instead of judgment. For many students, the measurement of achievement this past year was not grades – it was getting through a pandemic. Parents can help their children see the value of their efforts and how their experiences may be similar or different from others in their community. Looking forward, are there ways to help fellow classmates and neighbors?

Collective View

Applying a growth mindset more broadly can allow us to look critically at the past year and identify what lessons we have learned as individuals and as a society. There is plenty of good news related to vaccines and the very low risk of outdoor transmission that will allow for this summer to be closer to normal. But 600,000 Americans have died. While most children with COVID typically have not had serious illness, 75 percent of the children who have died from COVID-19 were Black, Hispanic, or Native American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the COVID-19 school closures, one in ten of the poorest children in the world’s largest economy had little or no access to technology for learning. COVID continues to be a public health problem, not just an individual one.

In the past, our country has come together in times of crisis. In a recent interview, journalist Emma Goldberg stated “We have to think about who is able to resume a normal life, who doesn’t stand to gain from resumption of normal life, and how we can wrestle with all the ways that our lives were upended over the last year. It’s understandable that some people want to jump back into the joys of pre-pandemic life, but that’s not accessible to a lot of people, including most people in the world.”

Many children and adults, including teachers, therapists, healthcare workers, and other frontline workers found themselves overstretched this year and reaching out for professional help. Public conversations about mental health have increased, which can be an important step in decreasing stigma and making services more accessible and equitable.

In most communities around the country, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a much greater appreciation for the importance of public schools. Parents struggled to work while their children were at home due to school closures and there was public recognition of the essential caretaking role schools play in society. As communities struggled to take care of their children and youth, they found new mechanisms for delivering essential services including food, education, mental health, and healthcare.

As we enter the summer of 2021, it is hard to overestimate the toll of the pandemic and all the ways that we have been changed, many of which are still unknown. For many, there is a great deal to be grateful for and hopeful about. We have the opportunity to create a legacy of striving to do better when faced with a global crisis by being present, connected, and spreading hope and opportunity equitably among our youth.

Read Part 1: One for the Yearbooks: A Time to Process the End of Another School Year in a Pandemic

Maura Dunfey, D.O. is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at our Paoli, PA and Wynnewood, PA Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at mdunfey@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7058.

Laurel Roe, M.S. CHR, LMFT is a Staff Therapist at our Bryn Mawr, PA and Paoli, PA Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at lroe@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4444.