To help families support their children as we navigate the emotional impact of school closures, social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic, our school psychologists, social workers and prevention counselors have teamed up to create age-specific tips and strategies.
Some of the most powerful things that families can do to help their children? Establish a daily routine, maintain regular contact with friends and loved ones and be present.
And School Social Worker Jessenia Cursio has some important advice for parents: “Be kind to yourselves. There is no right way of doing this. Know that you are doing the best that you can and that we’re all in this together.”
Early Elementary Grades
If your child is feeling worried, William O. Schaefer Elementary School Psychologists Kaitlin McSwiggan and Brian Galvin recommend that parents:
- Encourage kids to talk about their worries with people they trust. Let them know that having worries is OK and that if they have questions, it’s important to ask the people they trust for help.
- Breathe it out. Encourage your child to use box breathing, star breathing or finger tracing and repeat five times to slow their breathing.
- Look for fun. Shift your focus away from the worries and do something fun, such as play a board game, painting or drawing.
- Let worries go. Set a three-minute timer and encourage your child to think about all the worries they want during those three minutes. When the timer goes off, worry time is over! Get up, move to a new space and engage in a fun activity.
- Focus on the “circle of control.” Help your child to identify what issues are within their control and what is not. Then, focus on things they can actively do to help themselves when they have a worry thought that is stuck. One way to demonstrate the difference between “control” and “cannot control”: Use a rock and play dough. The rock represents things we cannot control and the play dough represents things we can control. What happens when we squeeze a rock? Nothing; we can’t change the rock. What happens when we squeeze the play dough? We can shape it, mold it and change it. The same is true for worries. When we worry about things outside of our control, we do not change them. When we instead focus on things we can control, we can make positive changes to help ourselves feel better.
Upper Elementary Grades
Cottage Lane Elementary School Psychologist Linda King suggests that keeping kids active, engaged and connected is key:
- Establish and maintain routines, especially bedtime and mornings, to help provide children with a sense of stability and security.
- Eat meals together when possible. Use this time to talk about what is happening in the family or outside of the family. Give kids other outlets for self-expression like dance, exercise, writing or drawing or crafts.
- Stay connected with family and friends by establishing regular FaceTime, Zoom, Skype contact.
- Get outside! Exercise, even just a walk, should be part of daily routine.
- Make the most of family time by playing board games, reading, cooking or baking together.
- Let kids help out by doing chores and/or helping someone in need in the neighborhood or locally in a safe way that maintains social distance.
South Orangetown Middle School Psychologist Courtney Malka and School Prevention Counselor Bobbie-Angela Wong collaborated on tips for students in grades 6, 7 and 8:
- Practice mindfulness. Sometimes when we feel stressed, the best thing we can do is take a break and re-center ourselves. We can practice deep breathing (breathing in for 10 seconds and out for 10 seconds) or use a guided meditation or mindfulness exercise. Apps such as Virtual Hopebox and Calm have several guided meditations that can be helpful.
- Build self-awareness. When we feel overwhelmed, it is often because we are worried about a whole host of things. Some of these things are within our control (our feelings, our thoughts, our responses), but some of these things are out of our control (others’ actions, the amount of homework we have, etc.). It can be helpful to take time to create a “circle of control” drawing to help identify and let go of the things we cannot control and empower us to change the things we can.
- Reframe for optimism. When we are overwhelmed or stressed, we often have a lot of negative thoughts, most of which are not true. These thoughts can include things such as “I can’t do this” or “I can never do anything right”. It can be helpful to reframe these thoughts in a more positive light. For example, “I can’t do this” can be reframed to “I am struggling right now. I can ask for help.” “I can never do anything right” can be reframed to say “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. This is a learning experience for me.”
- Start the day with a positive mindset. Each morning, create a list of three schoolwork things you wish to accomplish each day, as well as three things you will do for yourself. This can be exercising, getting outside or connecting with family and friends. Before beginning work, practice saying positive and encouraging words to yourself, such as “I am capable” and “I get better every day.”
- Look for constancy during change. Remember that while things may be different, there are other things that remain constant. Today think about what remains the same while other things might be changing. For example, while you may not be in the school building, your teachers are still your teachers and still care about you. What else remains the same? Your love for music, art, or science? Your friends?
- Create a strategic to-do list. When it seems like we have a never-ending “to-do” list, it helps to strategize the best way to tackle it. Doing a few quick and easy tasks first can help to build momentum and motivation, as you see yourself checking items off your list. Next, tackle a more difficult or time-consuming task, followed by a break. You may repeat this cycle or any other version that works for you – the most important part is creating a schedule that keeps you motivated and feeling your best.
- Maintain positive relationships. Email, text, or letter to connect with a family member or friend
- Take time to reflect. Things to think or journal about could be: What are you doing to be kind and compassionate to yourself and others? What are you doing to show gratitude to yourself and others? How have you shown empathy this week?
Tappan Zee High School Psychologists Katelin Burns and Bradley Hercman urge students to make mental health a priority while schools are closed and shared these wellness tips:
- Maintain a routine. Set an alarm. Designate a space for working and keep that area free of clutter and distractions. Get dressed and change out of PJs. Take a walk outside. Set an end time for the day. Go to bed at a reasonable time. Practice good hygiene. Try to stick to your daily routine as much as possible.
- Minimize media usage. Limit television, internet, phone viewing of access to news. Instead, seek information updates at specific times. Exposing yourself to news and social media all day can increase anxiety and prevent you from being productive.
- Maintain contact with friends and family. Reach out. We are all in this together, and we can all benefit from camaraderie. Make phone calls, send emails, set up virtual meetups. Check in on people. Keep in mind we are all experiencing different levels of isolation. Use increased free time to converse with those you care about. Talk about your experience with others. Don’t shy away from sharing.
- Avoid burnout. With weeks or months of COVID-19 pandemic social distancing likely still ahead, it is important to have downtime. Exercise, eat well, stay hydrated, sleep. Take breaks. Enjoy nature.
- If you still feel anxious: Explore the present moment and try a grounding technique. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now, if you are reading this, you are okay. Then shift your attention to something else–on what you need to do today. On what you were doing before you noticed the worry. Or something you like doing for fun–mindfully with your full attention. Remember, this is temporary. You are not alone.
Without the normal structure of their regular academic, work and social lives, students may feel bored and have difficulty focusing on tasks. TZHS School Prevention Counselor Ponnu Varghese-John suggests that students push themselves to find fun ways to make use of their time by identifying things they can do on their own or with family. Here are a few of her suggestions:
- On your own: Journaling, painting, Sudoku, reading, planning a dream vacation, working outdoors, listening to podcast or creating amazing playlists
- With family: Try new recipes together, plan a movie/game/karaoke night, garden, convert family photos and albums into digital format as a keepsake, create a virtual book club with extended family or friends or stay active by training for a 5K together or dancing it out!)
If you feel that your child would benefit from additional support, please email their teacher, school counselor or administrators for help. Families may also reach out to the New York State Office of Mental Health’s new Emotional Support Helpline for free and confidential assistance, 8AM-10PM, 7 days a week at 1+ (844) 863-9314.