Right now, all of our students are experiencing a life-altering, world-shifting event. For anyone, that is a tremendous idea to grapple with. For a child, such an event is even more impactful. Many of our students have reported fear of what will happen to themselves and family members, frustration with the enormous changes in routine, and hesitancy to leave their homes. Their physical worlds are suddenly smaller while, mentally, they are consuming an enormous amount of new information.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk on the importance of SEL (Social and Emotional Learning). SEL aims to teach students how to deal with difficult emotions, handle problems, and develop healthy relationships. It is essential for a child to feel safe and secure before anything academic can be retained. Because of that, more and more teachers are focusing on building a safe classroom community where students feel heard and understood.
During this time of upheaval and a constant underlying feeling of anxiety, both at school and at home, it is important to make time to take care of ourselves and our children. Childrens’ behaviors may change, they may be holding more feelings inside, and they may be seeking to gain control in a world that feels more out of control. If we stay tuned in, however, to the social and emotional needs of our children and ourselves, we can come out of this with strong bonds and enhanced resilience.
Acknowledge and Address Your Child’s Feelings
Throughout this unprecedented time, students are likely experiencing a great deal of emotions. There was the initial excitement of being out of school–almost like a break–for a couple weeks, accompanied by hidden fears of what was to come. Then, as the duration grew, more emotions developed: boredom, loneliness, sadness, stress, uncertainty, etc. COVID-19 and its possible effects are difficult for anyone to understand, let alone a child. Regular check ins with your child to understand and address their feelings can lead to productive and helpful conversations that help your child process these confusing emotions. Children may also have misconceptions about what is going on that need clarification or correction.
If your child is like most we have spoken to, they miss time to interact with peers and teachers. Though everyone in the family might be home, because of other obligations keeping parents from being fully “present”, children may be experiencing a lot more alone time than usual. To combat this problem, Gersh Academy has arranged virtual playdates to bring friends and parents together in a friendly environment. They have also paired many students with a teacher/mentor for an added layer of support. Encourage your child to make efforts to maintain friendships and help them come up with ways they can interact with peers virtually and safely. As weeks go by, sometimes the motivation to socialize starts to slide, but it is vital for a child’s development to take time to interact with other children.
Be Prepared for Changed Behavior
When young people experience strong feelings, they react in a variety of ways: fear, anger, sadness, etc. They might be anxious, worrying about their own safety as well as those whom they love, and be unsure about when and if this time will end. They might be more clingy or demanding, suddenly in need of constant reassurance. They may lose motivation to engage in routine self-maintenance like showering, getting dressed in the morning, and even sleeping. Most likely, your child has had some sort of reaction to this, and possibly has altered behavior in some way.
To deal with the changed behavior effectively, it is important for the child to stay connected. Parents and teachers can help by being more patient for the time being and showing empathy when possible. Creative ways to keep in touch with others can also help, whether that be participating in car parades, sending cards and letters, or taking part in regular virtual chats with family and friends.
Support and care from a trusted adult will enable a child to bounce back faster and persevere with a stronger morale. Knowing this, Gersh Academy is utilizing guidance counselors, Assistant Principals, and therapists to reach out to students and check in on their mental well-being. This is a traumatic experience for some students, and the more adults a child has in their corner, the better.
Monitor Media Consumption
At present, children are being bombarded with information about COVID-19. They are likely seeing news coverage, scrolling through social media articles and posts, and picking up tidbits from overhearing adult conversations.The problem is, when a child doesn’t fully understand something or does not have all the information necessary, they tend to create and imagine in order to fill in the gaps. This, in turn, leads to more stress and fear than necessary.
Conversations with your child about what they already know–or think they know–can help remedy this problem. Relaying information in an age-appropriate way, and doing your best to keep media exposure to a minimum, can help your child process the current world and more clearly and accurately identify their role in it.
Create Family Rituals and Routines
As parents of young people on the spectrum, we know well the importance of routine and regularity. That routine, of course, has been completely upended in recent months. To the best of our ability, it is important to create a fresh routine and new family rituals to take part in. Having a predictable routine, including maintaining regular bedtimes and mealtimes and keeping consistent schedules, help children feel safe and more secure.
If time allows, incorporating family walks to replace the usually hectic mornings can set up the day in an energizing way. Getting out of the house, a place we all know all too well at this point, can help relieve some of the stress we are all under. Working with your child on a creative project, and even setting time aside each week to do this in order to create a ritual, can become a positive bonding time you look forward to. Consider having a dance party to the child’s favorite music, cooking or baking together, or making a craft for the house. Devising these rituals and routines during this time can give everyone something to regularly look forward to, and lift the spirits in your home.
Don’t Forget Yourself!
It is easy as parents to experience guilt for not having the time to always be fully present, and second nature to sacrifice your needs for theirs. However, taking care of yourself is possibly the most important thing you can do to get through this difficult time. When adults do not take time to rest and rejuvenate, children notice. And, after noticing the stress, they are likely to take some onto themselves. Because our children are such emotional sponges, we have to make sure we take the time to engage in self-care.
Taking walks, meditating, engaging in a past hobby, or taking the time to chat with friends not only puts your mind more at ease, but it also teaches your child what it looks like to prioritize your social and emotional well-being. Even setting a time at night, especially if you have younger children, to “turn off” can give your mind the break it requires and deserves.
While it is always a priority to care for the social and emotional well-being of children and of yourselves, in an uncertain and scary time, it is essential. Checking in, being aware, and making time can build the skill set needed to survive this time, and to come out stronger in the end.