COVID-19 Keeping Schools Safe: Talking to students about mental health during pandemic

COVID-19: Keeping Schools Safe

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The abrupt ending to the 2020 school year that left students and teachers without goodbyes, final grades and the chance to celebrate end-of-the-year accomplishments, impacts Tennessee students in different ways.

Learning how to talk about these cancellations and new words like “social distancing” is different for every student, experts say it varies by age and understanding.

Families may now be tasked with bigger conversations about mental health and wellness in ways they otherwise would not have been if it weren’t for COVID-19. This, perhaps, part of a “new normal” created by the pandemic.

“These past weeks and months will shape our kids and their generation forever. This is probably the most defining point in their life, I feel like. They’ve showed us a lot,” Christie Knapper, a mother of three elementary-age students, said.

The Knappers began working and learning from home at the end of March. Like many families statewide, it wasn’t an instant adjustment.

“There was more fear in the beginning than anything else,” Christie said. “We’ve always tried to be open with them. … They were pretty disappointed when school was called for the year.”

Immediately, Knapper knew her children needed normalcy. She created a lesson plan and a schedule. Everyday “class” would start at 9 a.m. and each would be expected to focus on a subject for 30 minutes at a time. She focused on everything from math to writing to art and even physical education.

Christie and her husband Wade transitioned to working from home when the novel coronavirus began to spread and businesses moved employees home. They work as a team balancing business calls and daily lessons with the kids.

“Some days are just really hard, and that’s OK,” Christie said. “I think one thing we try to do with our kids, we try to tell them, we don’t have all the answers.”

All three will start at Northshore Elementary in Knoxville this year. Braden, 5, will be in kindergarten; Camryn, 9, will be in fourth grade; and Joel, 11, will be in fifth grade.

From left, Camryn, Braden and Joel Knapper gather around a computer screen at the kitchen table.

Although they know where they’ll be attending school, what it will look like is still unknown.

“We asked them, how does this make you feel? Sometimes, that’s intimidating to a kid. So you’ve got to find ways to make them come out of their shell a little bit,” Christie said.

Talking to their children about how they felt, their emotions and their fears, became a regular part of their time spent at home. This practice of asking open-ended questions and creating a safe space for their children to share is a practice recommended by professionals too.

“Loneliness is real and it can hurt”

Patrick Jensen is a psychiatrist at Peninsula, a behavioral health hospital, a division of Parkwest Medical Center, associated with Covenant Health.

Jensen recommends families address mental health and wellness with their children, even those that may be too young to fully understand what’s happening, by putting the conversation into words and phrases their children may understand.

“We also have to have terminology for discussing when they have difficulty,” Jensen said. “We have to give them a language for when they start to feel sad or nervous.”

Other signs that these changes to the daily routine or lack of social interaction may be regressions in behavior, for example, a child may revert to wetting the bed as a reaction to stress or fear, Jensen says.

“Are they lonely? Are they feeling disconnected? Are they feeling angry?” asks Jensen, using these questions as examples of what guardians can ask children during this time of uncertainty.

“Loneliness is real and it can hurt. We shouldn’t avoid talking about that in ourselves or with our families and our children. If this time we’re in has done anything, it’s that loneliness is palpable.” 

Patrick Jensen, Psychiatrist

Jensen also recommends adults ask themselves the same questions, because he says, self-care is a form of caring for others, because individuals are in a better mindset to have these more difficult conversations.

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