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Handling Anxiety for Back-to-School 2020

Parents across the country are wondering how to support their kids at home: in their social lives, academic needs, and growing consciousness of the larger world. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a powerful tool to help kids make sense of themselves and situations around them. No one could have expected 2020 to bring so many frustrations, twists, and turns, but social-emotional skills—such as empathy, patience, self-awareness, and the ability to handle big emotions—remain a constant source of resilience and understanding.

The Imagine Neighborhood™ is a podcast designed to help build social-emotional skills at home. Kids and grown-ups can listen together, and they’re encouraged to discuss the show’s themes and dig further into important topics like frustration or anxiety. But many grown-ups still worry: “Am I doing enough to support my child’s social-emotional development?”

Luckily, we have a real live expert in our midst: Dr. Sherri Widen, who you might know from the show as Dr. Sherri, P!h!D! As a developmental psychologist and SEL researcher, Dr. Sherri has provided an invaluable voice in the creation of The Imagine Neighborhood episodes and the show’s Daily Adventure activities. We sat down to ask her some questions about SEL at home and preparing kids for unknowns at the start of the school year.

Q: Dr. Sherri, kids across the country are preparing to go back to school, either remotely, in person, or in some combination of the two, and it’s hard to know what to expect. What can grown-ups do to help their kids manage this very uncertain time?

A: I think it’s best to be honest about what you know regarding your district’s back-to-school plan. School reentry is a big challenge this year and each school district is working hard to come up with the best solution for students. But it’s important to remember that even after a decision is made, the situation may change. Be ready for some big emotions when that happens. This kind of uncertainty may be new for your kids. Help them identify their feelings and ask questions about why they feel that way—you may be surprised by their answers!

Q: There are a lot of big emotions in my home right now! What tips do you have for managing those emotional responses?

A: Work to maintain your own calmness. Pause for a few seconds in order to plan what you want to say. Take a deep breath or two, then help your child do the same. Assure them you understand that it’s frustrating or even a little scary to not know what’s going to happen. These big emotions are often opportunities to begin a conversation about what your child is hoping for or dreading when school starts. You can also revisit the conversation later when your child is calmer and has had some time to make sense of that feeling of uncertainty.

Q: Kids are really missing those social connections with their friends from school. Do you have any recommendations for ways that grown-ups can help their kids build social skills, even when they can’t be in the same place as their peers?

A: Social time—when kids get to talk and play together—is important for social development, but right now, face-to-face interactions are risky. Let’s not forget that adults can also have a big impact by modeling positive social-emotional skills for their kids. Grown-ups can build on what their children already know is “right” or “nice” by explaining the motivation behind those actions. For example, “I’m wearing a mask when I go out to protect myself and other people. No one wants to get sick.” Or, “I call grandma every day so that she knows I’m thinking about her and I can make sure she’s okay.” Grown-ups can also comment when they notice their children showing social-emotional skills, like taking turns, sharing, being polite, and helping others. When children know that the grown-ups in their life value these kinds of behaviors, they’ll do them more often.

Thank you, Dr. Sherri, for your insights and your expertise! We know this time is full of unknowns for kids and grown-ups. But having a strong social-emotional foundation can help us all make sense of the ups and downs. The Imagine Neighborhood can be a great tool to start a discussion about big feelings like quarantine frustrations or feeling scared. Each research-based episode offers a great place to start a conversation with your child about those big topics and the feelings that surround them.

If there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, send us a note! We may use your idea for a future episode.


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