The start of a new school year always has its ups and downs, but this year will be unlike anything students, parents and teachers have ever seen.
That’s why Pinellas County Schools launched its new Parent-Guardian Connection Program. The program will feature monthly virtual sessions where parents can connect with one another, share resources and get support.
“Our parents abruptly became teachers, behavior specialists, guidance counselors, and so much more without any notice or training,” said Keosha Simmons, the parent advocate for Pinellas County Schools. “We wanted to continue our work supporting families and communities, and this is how the Parent-Guardian connection was born.”
Resources like these are especially critical during these uncertain times, Simmons said.
“Covid has caused our daily lives to shift in ways we never could have anticipated or imagined,” said Simmons, herself a mother of three. “There was no way to prepare for this.”
About 100 parents attended the first virtual session Wednesday night, which featured a presentation from licensed psychotherapist Carleah East on children’s mental health, and how parents can best prepare to send them back to school, whether virtually or in person.
“Lots of us are just trying to stay afloat,” East said. “On top of that, we have kids. They need answers and we need answers.”
That starts with being very transparent with them about what’s going on in the world, East said, and not offering false promises about what might happen in the future.
“You want to be encouraging, but honest. You can tell them we’re going to make it through this, but you don’t want to lie,” she said. “If you’re giving false hopes and saying everything will be fine, well, the he truth is we just don’t know.”
Children, like adults, fear the uncertain. This is an opportunity for parents to take control over as much as possible and empower their children to do the same. Instead of framing the conversation as “you have to wear a mask at school,” East suggests parents turn it into a positive.
“Let them pick out masks that they love and talk about it as an opportunity for them to be prepared,” she said. “Kids don’t feel in control right now. We want to give them back as many pieces of power as we can.”
Parents should also be watchful for mood and behavior changes, East said. Are children who are very talkative suddenly silent? Are they spending a lot of time alone in their rooms? These are possible signs of isolation and depression, and children are just as susceptible as adults to these feelings. The only difference is that they don’t have the life experience to navigate what they’re going through. That’s why parents need to ask questions and not wait for their kids to come to them.
“If we don’t ask the questions, they won’t answer,” East said. “They may feel guilt or shame for feeling different than their friends or what they see on social media. They may not want to be a burden to you by speaking up. Ask questions and share how you’re feeling with them – it lets them know you’re human.”
And when children do open up and share how they’re feeling – even if it seems like they’re being moody or disrespectful – be patient with them, East said.
“Recognize they’re going through something,” she said. “Ask them why they are responding this way. Ask them why they’re upset instead of just assuming.”
In terms of returning to school, East acknowledged that many parents are dealing with judgment from family and friends on how they’re sending their children back.
“If you’re getting negative feedback from other people, please tell them ‘thank you, I appreciate your concern, but we’ve got it,’” she said. “No one gets to guilt you on your decision.”
But it’s not just parents who might be feeling conflicted on returning to school. Kids understand that this year will be different, and it’s important for parents to talk to them about it.
“Ask them how they’re feeling about the decision, give them the opportunity to share and then validate what they’re saying,” she said. “Don’t just tell them not to be nervous. Say you understand how they can feel that way, and give them examples of situations you’ve been in when you’ve been nervous about something.”
For parents sending kids back to school online, East encourages setting realistic expectations. Your days may look different than they used to and things might not be perfect. There might even be times when kids miss a day. That’s OK, she said.
“We’re not dealing with traditional times,” she said. “We need to let go of traditional timelines.”
Finally, East reminds parents that they need to take care of themselves, too. Get out and exercise. Talk to friends. Write your feelings down in a journal. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media and watching the news. And don’t beat yourself up – everyone’s doing the best they can.
“We can forget ourselves and sacrifice ourselves as parents,” East said. “It’s OK to take time for you. Just as you acknowledge how your kids are feeling, you need to know how you’re feeling.”
To watch a recording of Wednesday’s meeting, click here.