By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.
“Whether a parent is getting a neurotypical kid ready for school or one with a mental health condition, the place to start is positive communication,” according to Sally Sederstrom who spent six years working as a Mental Health Therapist in Spokane School District. “Start off by asking your child what they are looking forward to in the new school year. Ask how this year will be different from last year. Ask your child who they are excited about seeing.”
The parent may discover that the child is looking forward to something as simple as the snacks or to coming back home again. If they haven’t seen some of their friends over the summer, they may be looking forward to seeing them again. They may be looking forward to seeing a special person on staff who was always friendly to them like the attendance officer or the librarian or a special teacher.
Ms. Sederstrom added that if the child says they are not looking forward to anything, the parent can remind them about things the child liked last school year. Remind the child that last year was last year and the new year brings new chances.
However, Ms. Sederstrom cautioned that it is important not to sugarcoat. The start of school can be a nerve racking time of year, especially for kids with mental health conditions. She encourages parents to follow-up if kids say they are worried about going back to school. Ask your child what specifically they are worried about. What is making the child not want to go? Offering empathy is one of the most important things a parent can offer their child.
Ms. Sederstrom encourages parents to look for changes in behavior as the time for school to start approaches. They may notice their child not wanting to participate in activities they normally enjoy. The parent may notice that the child isn’t sleeping properly or can’t concentrate. They may feel restless or on edge. Sometimes the behavior associated with depression turns into anger and the child may be picking fights with siblings. There can be somatic things like headaches, stomach aches or throwing up. Ms. Sederstrom encourages the parents to bring these behavior changes to the attention of the child and to open the door to more communication. Ask the child if something is bothering him/her and again offer empathy and support. If needed, the parent can contact the school and see if there are resources for an anxious or depressed child.
Kids with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety might be feeling really nervous as the start of the school year comes closer. Ms. Sederstrom stresses that the parent can communicate that the child is not alone. The parent can offer support to the child when they get back home and can sometimes be reached by text during the school day if the child needs extra support that day. For younger kids it may help to have them draw and color their feelings. For an older child, a journal might be helpful.
Parents can also remind an anxious child that the child has approaches to managing anxiety that work. Perhaps deep breathing has worked in the past. Perhaps remembering a special place like their bedroom or the beach has calmed them at other times. Parents have the opportunity to help their kids come up with a signal for the teacher to indicate that they are starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and need to take a time out in the hall. That signal might be a raised hand or just putting their head down on the desk.
Some kids who struggle with depression may have a hard time getting up and out the door for school. Ms. Sederstrom stressed that persistence on the part of the parents is important. Stress that if the child waits another day to go back to school it will be that much harder. Ms. Sederstrom is not opposed to using incentives. The parent can offer something special when the child comes home if he goes to school. Explain that parents have to go to work and children have to go to school. That is their job.
While communication is at the heart of preparing a child for going back to school, parents can also look at the physical side of school re-entry. If the child is staying up too late, begin having them go to bed fifteen minutes earlier a night for two weeks, so they can get back into the school routine. Stop screen time at least an hour before bed. Make sure they are eating well. Talk about what breakfast and lunch will be like during the school year and be prepared for the meals for the first week.
According to Ms. Sederstrom, it is important to normalize that feeling nervous is part of the process of going back to school for many kids. If possible, connect the child to friends before school starts. Initiate a talk with the child along with their friends on what they are looking forward to at school and then ask them if they are worried about anything.
One way to relieve some nervousness about a new school is to visit that school in advance. Make sure the child knows where the cafeteria and playground are. Any familiarization with the building can help reduce nervousness.
Ms. Sederstrom stressed that communication and empathy are key to getting kids ready for back to school. In addition, the parent can stress that parent, the child, and school staff are all on a team and can work together to help the child successfully launch a new year at school.
Sally Sederstrom served as a Mental Health Therapist at Shaw Middle School in Spokane for six years ending in 2021. She spent the last two years working as a Mental Health Therapist at Grand County High School in Moab, Utah.
Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.