It’s practically a proverb: “Kids are resilient.” She stayed up too late? No problem. His best friend is moving to Idaho? He’ll be OK. She’s changing schools? His beloved pet died? Her favorite aunt is in the hospital? They’re going to be just fine.
The truth is that kids’ ability to bounce back from hardship even in normal times might not be as robust as adults think—but it’s especially weakened now. Nearly a year and a half after the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, children need a lot of support to regain their emotional wellbeing, build their mental health, and hit their academic strides. We asked experts for their best practical insight and advice to help children where they are right now.
Mental Health Help
In late May, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health state of emergency, triggered by the significant uptick their healthcare providers have seen in children’s need for behavioral-health services. “The pandemic has introduced acute and chronic stressors into our kids’ lives,” says Jenna Glover, Ph.D., child psychologist at the hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Schools closed, and then many of them bounced between remote learning, hybrid models, and in-person instruction in ways that felt unpredictable to adults and downright mind boggling to children. “A lot of the other things kids use to keep their resiliency tanks full were denied to them,” Glover says. Sports were canceled, traditions put on hold, and holidays and celebrations watered down. The result? “During some extra busy days in Spring 2021, at least 50 percent of kids seen at the Children’s Colorado emergency department were experiencing anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating and mood disorders, and/or suicidal ideation. That’s double pre-pandemic levels,” Glover says.
The good news is that you have a lot of power as a parent to help your child regain and build mental health. Here’s what you need to know:
Your child might be grieving. Milestones that seem small to parents can be enormously important to children: Perhaps the annual fifth-grade field trip got canceled, or your child missed her shot at being captain of the soccer team because the season got called off. It’s easy for parents to overlook the significance of these losses, Glover says. “Parents have a ‘righting reflex’ that makes us eager to fix the problem, but it’s really important to first validate your child’s experience and stay there for a while.” Say something like, “It’s really sad that you lost that opportunity” or “I understand why you feel disappointed.” Give kids permission to be sad and grieve.
Your child might be nervous about a return to school. “Kids might have a lot of anxiety about connecting to peers who they maybe haven’t seen in over a year,” Glover says. They might also lack confidence in their academic abilities, especially if their grades slipped last year or they had a hard time with online learning. Don’t assume—or force—positive feelings.
Your child needs to talk—and you need to initiate. “Because of the cumulative nature of stress, some kids will not demonstrate any mental health problems until six to eight months from now,” Glover says. To keep your finger on your child’s emotional pulse, ask open-ended questions that go beyond, “How are you feeling?” Glover suggests probing both the hard parts of a situation and the exciting parts: What are your concerns? What are you looking forward to? “[These types of questions] create more flexible thinking in kids and help them see that even in a hard situation, there are positives, too.”
Your child needs to get outside. “We know that time outside in nature is tremendously helpful for kids’ mental health,” Glover says. Kids and teens need time outdoors every single day, even if that’s just a walk or bike ride around the neighborhood during the week. On weekends, take family hikes.
Your child needs sleep. “A majority of mental health problems would be mitigated by better sleep,” notes Glover. Implementing consistent bedtimes (even for your teens) and removing screens from bedrooms (no TVs, no phones!) will go a long way toward boosting your children’s wellbeing.
Your child needs traditions. And they don’t have to be fancy. Implement a Friday family movie night and serve popcorn. Make a list of all the parks in your area and visit one every Saturday until you’ve seen them all. Traditions provide that boost of feel-good vibes that kids need to get their brains, bodies, and emotions healthy.
Your child might need professional help. If you have any ongoing concerns about your child’s behavioral health, call your pediatrician. (Of course, take your child directly to the ER for any acute crisis.) The doctor can refer you out to professionals based on your child’s age and needs. Getting your child help now can stave off a bigger problem later.
If You Do Just One Thing To Support Your Child’s Learning…
Read. You knew that was coming, right? Research shows that even up through middle school, children who read with parents at home (and watch their parents read) perform better academically. They report higher rates of curiosity, and have stronger standardized test scores than kids who report little to no family reading.
It is no surprise that “literacy is the foundational skill for all learning,” says Jenn Molen, reading specialist and first-grade lead teacher at Augustine Classical Academy in Lakewood. She points to a concept in neuroscience, which reveals that the key to learning is making connections to what we already know. The stronger a child’s literacy, the more they’re likely to read, and the greater the number of connections they’re able to make, which exponentially increases learning capacity.
After a bumpy academic year for many students, Molen has hopeful news: You can help your child make up for some lost learning with book-based activities that are easy to implement.
For K-2 students: “Listening to your child read aloud is the single most important academic activity you can do,” Molen says. As they read, you provide guidance and feedback. If a passage is particularly tough, read it aloud, and then invite them to read it again to you.
For K-5 students: As your child reads to you—and vice versa—stop every so often to ask questions: What does that word mean? What does that idiomatic phrase mean? Why do you think that character did that? Molen especially emphasizes the value of helping children make inferences. For young readers, you might ask what season it is if a picture shows leaves on the ground. For older readers, ask why a character is behaving a certain way. “We infer things all the time in real life,” she says. “It’s an important skill across academic subjects and in social situations, in relationships, in work.” Plus, the practice deepens our ability to remember stories and the information we read, which makes the act of reading more fruitful and more fun.
And because we learn by making connections, Molen helps her students draw a clear mental line from what they’re reading to what they know. “What did this story remind you of?” is a good question to ask. “Be sure you ask them ‘why’ because it develops deeper thinking about a book.” (For young learners, you might model how to answer these questions by giving your own answers first and then inviting them to do the same.)
For all kids: Read to them! “Your child needs to hear what it sounds like when someone reads fluently with correct speed and expression,” Molen says. “Even older children can listen to stories they aren’t yet able to read on their own, which builds background knowledge—important for those learning connections—and vocabulary. And that will help kids develop a love of learning.”
Time For A Tutor?
Stephanie Rosalky runs Wash Park Tutoring, which sends tutors—all professional educators—to clients’ homes for one-on-one academic coaching. She wants parents to know one thing right off the bat: “Hiring a tutor doesn’t mean someone is failing,” she says. “It means that you’re getting your child some support the same way you take your child to swimming lessons. That doesn’t mean your child is failing at swimming. It means a parent chooses to look to an expert for help.”
Rosalky says her business, which works predominantly with students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has been booming in the last year—but not because all of her young clients are failing to master concepts. “The biggest thing we hear from parents is that kids are struggling with academic anxiety and [lacking] confidence,” she says. “Because they have had a very disruptive and challenging year, students’ confidence has taken a tumble.” In response, her team of educators often works on reinforcing skills, giving kids a chance to practice and build proficiency and morale.
But of course, they also work with students to help them fill in actual gaps in learning. If your child needs extra support, now might be the time to look for targeted help. If you do, Rosalky shares this advice:
Decide who to hire: If you’re looking to your neighbor’s high school daughter who is a math whiz, ask why she likes working with kids and how she plans to help your fourth grader multiply fractions. She might be a great personality fit; just be sure you know how she plans to teach your kiddo. How will she know when your child has mastered a skill and is ready to move on? How will she manage your child’s emotions? How will she motivate your child?
If you opt for a professional firm like Wash Park Tutoring, ask about the company. What are the criteria for hiring? What resources are tutors using? Will the firm put you in touch with current clients to talk about their experiences?
Customize teaching time: Rosalky’s team tailors a program for each child with input from their classroom teacher. If a tutor-teacher connection isn’t possible, ask the teacher for specific areas where your student needs help. Instead of “writing,” perhaps your student should focus on persuasive writing. Instead of “math facts,” maybe the real issue is quick recall of division facts. The more info you can give the tutor, and the better they are able to measure progress or areas of weakness, the more effective tutoring time will be for your child.
Be consistent: Rosalky recommends at least 10 sessions to give your child a chance to get comfortable with the tutor and make real academic progress. “It’s important to choose a schedule and a budget you can commit to,” she says. Her firm charges $70 per hour; fees for tutors can range from $15 per hour (for a high school student, for example) to $100 for professionals.
IXL: An adaptive online platform with instruction and practice for pre-K-12 students in math, science, social studies, language arts, and Spanish.
Logic of English: This popular integrated reading, writing, and spelling curriculum offers an app that helps kids practice their phonograms—ideal for K-5 students. logicofenglish.com
Children’s Literacy Center: Free one-to-one tutoring for elementary students reading below grade level.
Teachers Pay Teachers: This online marketplace of learning materials created and sold by teachers is a treasure trove of resources, most of which have been tried and tested in real classrooms.
Family Media Plan: A tool provided by the American Association of Pediatrics to help kids and their parents plan together how kids should use their screen time.
Your neighborhood library: Most library systems maintain book lists parsed by grade level; grab one and check out a few new titles for your child.