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Remain Mindful of Back-to-School Stressors

By Annette Ermshar

Special to the Outlook

As the new school year is upon us, there are many conversations occurring about the impact of current events and stressors on the emotional and physical health of our youth.

Questions about how the pandemic has impacted the development of social skills, self-esteem and scholastic achievement are high on the minds of parents and educators. In the fall of 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital Association (CHA), and American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health. According to 2021 data from the CHA, there were more than 47,000 mental health visits to emergency rooms at children’s hospitals countrywide, which was almost 40% higher compared to 2020. Other reported signs of distress among students include increases in acts of aggression, self-harm, depression and suicidality.

What I am seeing in my private practice among youth are social delays (delays in the development of social, emotional intelligence), social communication issues, a rise in anxiety and panic and a desperate desire to “fit in” somewhere, anywhere, and with anyone. One of the many contributions to this distress is the reduction in peer interactions and the associated impact on the development of important social skills and a sense of belonging.

Given the past few pandemic years, a return to school this fall is highly anticipated and research supports the benefits of in-person school attendance. The U.S. Department of Education collected data before and during the pandemic, and found that in-person learning overall leads to better academic outcomes, more student engagement, higher attendance rates, as well as better social and emotional well-being. In-person attendance also allows for access to necessary school services, extracurricular activities and other benefits inherent in attending school such as skill-building in the areas of attention, focus, time management and prioritizing roles and responsibilities.

While we are a resilient community and we adapted to distance learning over the past few years, there are distinct aspects of “back to school” that benefit student learning and skill-building, including the socialization process where youth continue to learn about appropriate and expected behaviors, social norms and social values, which are important for social, emotional and intellectual success. Students are expected to work in peer groups, learn to share and join in clubs and organizations, all of which promote social learning, social competence and peer relationships. Research also shows that social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning and overall cognitive success.

In addition, although children certainly look forward to summer breaks, time off from school and vacations, research has shown that a structured and predictable routine helps children feel safe, establish healthy habits and create a space to develop solid life skills. Now that we are back to school, try to set a schedule that is consistent, familiar and predictable, which provides children and adolescents feelings of security and helps them feel in control of their environment.

As families shift from a summer schedule to the school year, the following tips can help facilitate a smooth transition back to school and create a strong foundation for academic and social success.

  • Healthy Play: This era’s access to electronic devices and social media have contributed to sedentary lifestyles and overreliance on screen time for entertainment. In lieu of video and computer-based games, let’s shift time to include others forms of healthy play. Ideally, we want our youth engaged in physical activities such as walking, hiking, going to the playground, playing soccer, shooting hoops or playing catch. Other forms of healthy play could also include board games or using one’s imagination for entertainment such as setting up a tent in the yard, making a fort and learning a new skill (like cooking, dancing or playing the guitar). Laughter is also associated with improved overall mood. Find ways to help your child laugh more.
  • Sleep Hygiene: It is extremely important to establish good sleep hygiene in order to promote health and well-being. Most children have spent their summer months staying up late, watching more television, or playing more video games. However, sleep hygiene is critical for proper sleep habits. Sleep represents the time when the brain processes what was learned that day, dumps irrelevant and unnecessary information and makes new neural connections that are critical for learning of new information. To facilitate quality sleep parents are encouraged to establish ground rules such as no computer, phone, or other screen time for two hours before sleep, no television or electronics in the bedroom, limit eating before bedtime and maintain the same sleep and wake times every day of the week. 
  • Limit Screen Time: It is a well-discussed problem that our youth are on their phones and computers too much of their day. Social media contributes to social distress and too much screen time is socially isolating. Chatting with friends on text and social media is not the same as social engagement. I routinely suggest to parents that they install apps on their child’s phone that limit the hours of daily screen time.
  • Nutrition: Nutrition plays a key role in health and wellness. In particular, managing sugar and caffeine intake, staying hydrated and integrating fresh whole foods to ensure an abundance of essential nutrients for the body is critical for optimal brain health. It is a well-known fact that gut health directly impacts mood and cognitive functioning.

This is going to be a great year! Help your child to feel excited about all that is ahead and remind them that they are resilient and capable.

Annette Ermshar, CEO of Dr. Ermshar & Associates, is a clinical neuropsychologist and holds a Ph.D. Her Pasadena-based private practice focuses on psychological assessment and treatment, neuropsychology and forensic psychology, and she has served as an expert consultant for television and media.

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