Starting school for the first time in can be stressful for parents and children. Residents in our Philadelphia apartments for rent know how difficult it is to shift from summer bed times, camp and activities to the rigors of returning to school. Children are suddenly thrown into a new environment, juggling the pressure of learning new academic skills and establishing relationships with peers. Some thrive, but others may need support through this transition.
COVID-19 has added additional complications to the already difficult back to school period.
In a recent survey, 75% of the parents feel that returning to school in-person would be better for their child’s mental health.
When home during the extended remote learning that was common last year, 31% of parents noticed their kids are feeling more socially isolated, 19% percent thought they seemed depressed, and 17% said their kids are more argumentative than usual.
Many children entering school are developmentally vulnerable in one or more areas, including emotional maturity, communication and cognitive skills (such as memory).
Children’s mental health is also becoming worse. While mental health professionals know emotional problems are prevalent among young children, they have little knowledge of how these issues develop throughout childhood. Such knowledge is crucial to inform early prevention and intervention, and to alter the development of emotional problems into adolescence and adulthood.
In addition to analyzing data on the rates of children’s emotional problems, there are a range of risk and protective factors that fall into four categories: individual aspects, social and cultural environment, parenting, and peer group experience.
A number of factors are associated with the increase in emotional problems of children over time. For example, compared to boys, girls started with higher levels of emotional problems at six to seven years, and these escalated at a faster rate. There is well-established evidence that adolescent girls often have more emotional problems than boys, but the evidence in childhood is not robust.
The findings suggest that girls with early signs of emotional problems, and their parents, should be considered for parent and child development support programs in the early years of school. Signals can include showing anxiety, chewing nails, not being able to make friends, having sleep problems and signs of depression.
How children regulate their emotions is another factor that influences their emotional wellbeing, particularly during the transition to school. This is the period when children face increasing demands to regulate their emotions in formal school settings.
Peer problems to be an important risk factor linked to children’s escalation of emotional problems, especially during the transition to school. Peer problems include issues such as not being able to make friends, having difficulty getting along with peers or being picked on by other children. Children need to learn skills related to making friends and maintaining friendships, such as cooperation, sympathy and helping others.
One thing to note is that the absence of peer problems does not necessarily suggest the presence of positive relationships. Teachers tend to view children without problematic behaviors more favorably than children with problematic behaviors, and so are less likely to support them. However, lack of peer problems might also mean that the child is isolated and does not have many friends.
It’s important that teachers and parents proactively assist children to develop their social skills. Among the most important ones are to encourage children to help others, cooperate, express their emotions and understand others’ emotions.
Studies suggest that the early years may represent a sensitive period during which maternal mental health problems have lasting and harmful implications on children’s emotional wellbeing across middle childhood.
How parents can help
Two important ways in which parents can prepare their children for school is by teaching them self-regulation and friendship skills.
To have better self-regulation skills, children need to learn to have some discipline early on. Trying to stick to a schedule, for example, is important.
Also important is helping children understand their emotions and express them in a constructive way – for example, to be able to say when they feel frustrated instead of having a tantrum.
To help children have better friendship skills, parents can encourage them to help other children, be involved in group activities with them and to act sympathetically towards others.