Back to School Field Guide

Back to School Field Guide

Mental health stress and online schoolwork take their toll on students and parents as they go back to school, but a local licensed psychologist and an elementary teacher are here to help.

Aberdeen elementaries are finding creative solutions to a unique problem. As adaptations to coronavirus concerns happen daily, Hub City schools are remaining flexible. They haven’t forgotten how important the relationship between students and teachers can be — whether learning is virtual, hybrid, or in person. Aberdeen Christian, Roncalli, and the public school district are all making big changes for kiddos to socialize and learn safely. Most of all, the return to class seems like a beacon of hope.

Two major differences shadow this year’s return to the classroom: children’s mental health being affected by another stressful transition and parents adjusting to facilitating both homework and online classwork. Local professionals Mandy Reed and Mark Stone share their advice for a smooth return to the school year.

Is my child feeling okay?

The shrill beep blares through hallways. A third grader lines up at the door and follows his classmates across the road to the streetlight. He’s used to fire drills, and if this were a real fire, he’d know exactly what to do.

Mandy Reed, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Northern Plains Psychological Associates.

Mandy Reed, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Northern Plains Psychological Associates, says that’s how prepared kids should be this fall.

Mandy, who’s not only passionate about children’s mental health but is also a mother herself, compares kids’ psychological response to the pandemic to disaster trauma.

“It has all of the traumatic stress effects that a typical disaster does,” Mandy says.

It’s hard to focus in class if a kid doesn’t feel safe. As in disaster preparedness, like a fire drill, children need to practice for returning to school in a safe way.

In disaster mental health, traumatic stress happens because a child’s natural coping methods become overwhelmed. With major stressors like getting sick, money troubles, or a parent’s work situation, it’s no surprise youngsters could be struggling.

She adds that some kids can come to think of COVID-19 as a monster coming to get them. Others think totally differently, maybe their toy dinosaur can conquer it.

Transitioning from summer to school is tough for kids in its own rite, but this year, a pandemic snatched “normal” away and shadows their return whether online or in-person.

“Good transitions cause stress too,” Mandy says.

So, even a child longing to swing from the monkey bars with friends could be feeling anxious.

A child experiencing traumatic stress might act out of their ordinary. This could be attention-seeking, isolating, or nervous habits.

Mandy’s biggest tip is to openly communicate with them. Drop the question, “how are you feeling?” Then, set their expectations now by talking through any changes they’ll see in school.

According to Mandy, kids will feel calmer in the long run knowing that school might need to move online like back in March or that their teacher might wear a mask.

In the end, remind them that it’s okay to feel nervous or unsure.

Mandy compares those conversations to a fire drill. The action might cause a little nervousness at first but will let them work through the anxiety in advance. They’ll be calmer when a fire — or an outbreak — does happen.

When stress looms, consistency can mean everything for a child’s mental health. It’s much easier to sort through emotions when a kid feels comfortable in a daily routine. Bedtime stories or family game night reassure kids even more that they have something to look forward to.

“When normalcy doesn’t look normal, we can still have a routine,” Mandy says.

As for social needs, Mandy says children mainly use time with friends and loved ones to heal from trauma. She reminds parents that the classroom is not the only place that’s possible.

Kids will benefit from outdoor playdates or walks with their friends or cousins. Dice games and Battleship also can be played from afar.

If relatives like grandparents or aunts could call to chat with little ones, kids will have a higher “perceived social support.”

Mandy explains that means kids feel someone would be there for them, even if they don’t ask for any help. The support is great news for a child’s mental health.

If you’re looking for more ways to make sure your child is doing alright, Mandy advises taking care of yourself. Kids are perceptive, so they’ll pick up on your response and mirror it.

“Kids heal [at] the pace of their parent[s],” Mandy says.

Kids are resilient. So, when they understand that scientists learn more daily about the mysterious virus, the hope for less uncertainty can carry them through.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help for yourself or your child. For more information and resources, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network at nctsn.org. // –Jeni Fjelstad


How Can I Navigate My Child’s Online Class?

Mark Stone

It’s no surprise that schools call on parents to step in when kids have a sick day, get caught in a virus outbreak, or need regular homework help. But it’s not always easy for parents to jump into that role or tutor in areas they haven’t thought about in years. That’s why Mark Stone, who teaches fourth through sixth grade religion classes at Roncalli, shares helpful advice for parents. Rest assured,though, that you won’t be expected to become a full time homeschool teacher. “If my students are at home or in school,” Mark says, “that doesn’t change the fact that it’s my responsibility to provide education for them.”

If your kid keeps getting distracted… 

REPLICATE A ROUTINE: Create a schedule similar to the one at school to keep kids focused when homework time arrives. 

If your kid gets it wrong… 

SAVE BY SUPPORT: Allow kids to do their own work and encourage a failed problem as a chance to learn. 

If your kid feels confused… 

COLLABORATE AND QUESTION: Facilitate open communication with the teacher and don’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions over email or phone. 

If your kid asks but you can’t answer… 

RESORT TO RESOURCES: Use teachers to find online resources, have extra video lessons, or arrange tutoring. 

If your kid learns something new… 

FIND THEIR STYLE: After reading or watching a lesson, allow kids to show their comprehension in whatever way comes naturally like drawing a picture, writing a summary, or showing a hands-on example. 

If your kid wants to learn more… 

ENCOURAGE STRENGTHS: Give them permission to play into their strengths whether that be art, technology, or writing.