Socially Distanced Learning Causing Worry?
Help Children Process Emotions Through Play
With the 2020/21 school year under way and various education options implemented nationwide, parents and kids alike are feeling a full spectrum of emotions. Many parents are searching for ways to best help their children emotionally process these new educational guidelines.

Understanding Emotions
Sometimes having an understanding of what your child may be experiencing helps guide your tools. Here are some emotions your child may be feeling as they start this new school year:

  • Returning to brick and mortar: Excited to see their friends, anxious about wearing a mask or seeing others in masks, confused about social distancing, scared of getting sick or being around others.
  • Online learning: Bored, distracted by being home rather than a focused learning environment, unsupported as they miss face-to-face guidance from teachers, isolated and lonely to be away from peers.
  • Hybrid: Disappointed to be going to  school on opposite days than friends, relieved to split-up their week between home and school, overwhelmed by juggling in-person and online learning.
  • Homeschool: At peace with learning from home, nervous (if homeschooling is new), concerned they won’t see their friends.
If you notice behavior changes such as emotional outbursts, shutting down or withdrawing, developmental regressions, or variations in eating or sleeping, recognize these signs as communication that your child may be having trouble processing their feelings and organizing their experiences regarding this new school year.

Here are a few ways to support children through their transitions this back to school season:

Validate Emotions
Become curious to what feelings your child may be experiencing this year. Ask and encourage them to share in a safe environment such as the family’s Calming Corner. Affirm your child’s fears and emotions to let them know they are valid, allowed, and heard.

Use Storytelling
The work of Dr. Daniel Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, showcases the power of connecting both hemispheres of the brain through storytelling to help children make sense of their experience and help them move to a place where they feel better about the situation.

As parents, we can help integrate the right, emotional side of the brain with the left, logical side of the brain in small moments of connection throughout the day. You may prompt with something like, “Tell me a story about your first week of school.”

For younger children or a child who is not ready to share, you may choose to begin the story and ask them to fill in the details about what happened and how they felt.
For older children or those comfortable with this process, ask them to replay their story through words, writing, or art.

Sometimes children feel more comfortable sharing through role playing, in the dark before bed, or when distracted with other things like coloring.

Give Space and Time
If your child communicates that they are not interested in discussing their anxious thoughts, give them space and talk later. For a healthy dialogue to occur, it is important for both you and your child to be in a regulated state of mind.

Teach your Child the Power of Thought
As your child begins to feel comfortable naming their feelings and fears, teach your child how to further examine them. Ask your child to identify the thought that is creating their pleasant or unpleasant emotion. Let your child know that they can change their feelings with their thoughts, and then guide them in exploring new perspectives to their experience.

  •  What is something positive that has come from this schooling option?
  •  What would you like to see happen this school year?
  •  What are you grateful for this school year?

Create Mantras
When we focus on the now, it helps to decrease the anxiety of what has yet to happen and the sadness about what already has. Practice new mantras that help your child revisit the present moment. You may say something like, “In this moment, I am safe, healthy, and happy” and repeat this phrase during anxious moments.

Use a Worry Box
If your child has trouble letting go of their worry, have them write down their worries and then put it in a worry box. Let them know that their worries will always be there if they want to come back to it, but that they can put them down for a while to focus on other things.
Focus on Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques are helpful in managing anxiety and worry as they can help your child transition out of their head and into their body. Try bumblebee breathing or five finger breathing.

In bumblebee breathing, ask your child to sit comfortably on the floor. Open both hands wide, bringing your thumbs to your ears and your fingers over your eyes. Take a big, deep breath inward, and then, as you exhale, make a humming noise through your lips. With ears blocked and eyes covered, take another deep inhale and then begin your next hum. For other variations, try making a zzzzzz, ohhhhh, or shhhhh sound and notice how it feels in your body.

In finger breathing, ask your child to hold one hand out, stretching their fingers like a star. Pretend the pointer finger of the other hand is a pencil that will outline their fingers. Start at the bottom of the thumb side and ask them to inhale as they trace up the finger, pause at the top, and then exhale as they trace down the finger. Continue the breathing practice until all five fingers have been traced.

Explore the Senses
Sensory experiences are a great recipe for helping children manage stress or worry. When children explore different sensory experiences, it can help them express themselves and regulate their brain and body. If your child is feeling an unpleasant emotion, have them try some of these:

  • Wall push-ups
  • Inversions
  • Walking outside barefoot
  • Squeeze a stress ball
  • Play with a fidget toy
  • Make a calming jar
  • Lay with a weighted blanket
  • Blow bubbles
  • Play in a sensory bin or with playdough
  • Animal walking

Try new ways for social interaction.
If your child worries they will not be able to connect with friends this school year, together brainstorm ideas for social opportunities. Some ideas may include:

  • Plan a virtual playdate
  • Meet friends at a park to connect in the fresh air
  • Become pen pals and write your friend or draw them a picture
 
Explain the changes
Children are receptive, and even the youngest of kids can gain from knowing information. Talk to your child about why school looks different this year, and let them know that it is likely a temporary experience. Our brain is wired in a way that when we know what to expect, we are more likely to feel safe. Understanding which change - whether it be wearing masks, social distancing, paused field trips or more - is causing big emotions in your child can help you recognize which ones to target at home.
 
Introduce changes at home
Introduce these new concepts slowly and create experiences where your children can achieve small successes. If, for example, your child is fearful about wearing a mask, start with practicing a few minutes each day and build from there. If your child finds it challenging to sit in front of the screen during Zoom lessons, start with shorter intervals and slowly increase. Your child will eventually grow into a space where they feel more comfortable.
 
Remind your child of love
One way to help your child through this transition is to remind them of the love in their life. Affirm your love and support, and also remind your child of all the others in their life - siblings, grandparents, cousins, friends, and so forth, that love them. Offer your child the tool that whenever they feel alone, they can place their hand to their heart and feel the collective love that they have, and that they are.

All emotions are sacred, and whether your child has pleasant or unpleasant feelings about this school year, you can validate and support them with tools that offer connection, understanding, and guidance. Parents are some of their children’s greatest teachers, and this unexplored time can be an opportunity to teach children life skills of self-awareness, empathy, resilience and grit, and to remind them that you always have their back.

Suzanne Tucker is a mom of four, a parent educator and founder of Generation Mindful, a company that creates educational tools and toys that nurture emotional intelligence via play and positive discipline, with a mission to raise an emotionally healthy world. Learn more about the science behind why play and positive discipline strategies work by checking out Suzanne's website: genmindful.com.