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Dealing with back-to-school anxiety? See what was said in our exclusive Zoom conversation with Baylor College of Medicine

HOUSTON – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into a new school year, there are many challenges that families are facing, including the isolation and anxiety of learning at home.

On Thursday night, KPRC 2 hosted a Back 2 School Zoom discussion with Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice-chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and vice-chair of psychology in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

ICYMI: Alief ISD Superintendent answered questions in our exclusive Zoom conversation

Dr. Storch spoke with our education team members and provided guidance for parents whose children may be struggling as they head back to school. Viewers had the opportunity to ask live questions during the Zoom discussion.

Join us now for the Zoom conversation with Baylor College of Medicine.

FULL COVERAGE: See KPRC 2′s full back-to-school coverage here

Here’s what was discussed in the meeting:

Question: I have a child with dyslexia, I’m concerning about the necessarily tools for Homeschooling to help us. My child struggled with Math & Reading. And he get the extra help from teachers at school but since homeschooling how can I help him.

Answer: How do we help support kids with different learning disabilities? The parent network is able to help families, and Houston is really fortunate to have resources to help. (Editor’s Note: See our full video to come for his complete recommendations.)

Question: What signs of stress should I look for in my teen? How do I reassure my child in these unprecedented times?

Answer: We have to be in mind for what is developmentally appropriate. Look for social withdrawal or a change in their behavior. Or aren’t doing the things that they enjoy doing. A lot of kids will experience things like stomachaches, headaches. Younger kids fear of separation. Among older kids, some impulsivity. Older kids could stay up late and not being on a schedule or issues with sleep. All those things can be signs and you want to reach out to a mental health provider or a primary care provider for help.

Be supportive, be reassuring and here’s why it’s going to be OK. I think there are a few other things. Getting enough sleep, exercising. Spending time doing things that are fun. Playing a board game. These are intermediate strategies that you can take to deal with the stress we’re facing right now.

Question: How will anxiety look different when it is directly related to the pandemic? How can school psychologists support us?

Answer: On the one hand, anxiety no matter the driver, will look similar. When people are anxious, people stay away from things that make them anxious. That’s a good idea, but it’s not good when it becomes pervasive. And there’s the cognitive piece -- the worry. The child is really engaging them in that worry. “Mom, I’m really worried.” And then there’s the physical domain. Sleep issues, stomachaches, headaches. There can be a combination of all of them. What we really want to be really mindful of what our public health experts tell us, but target excessive behaviors.

Question: What’s the best way to keep the children focused during school hours!?

Answer: This is hard stuff and if we strive for perfection, we’re going to fall short. It’s just got to be good enough. Just meet with your gang and explain the situation. Ask, what is the best way it would work. In our situation, we found separate areas and helped situate those areas and put a do not disturb sign and also set up a schedule set by the school and our family.

Start getting ready for this. Have kids wake up early, get dressed, get ready. Get them preparing for what this looks like. Get them to engage in some type of educational activity like reading. Like anything, the more that you take control of the situation, the better off you are.

Question: How can school psychologists support us?

Answer: A lot of kids who have various learning difficulties will have an individualized educational plan and the school psychologists help. Schools are the initial place for figuring out mental health issues and school psychologists can help with those issues. And parents need to try to help advocate for kids because things may not be picked up on in the traditional way that it’s been reported before.

Question: What should school officials expect in terms of student behavior once they return after being out of the classroom for such an extended period of time? How can schools best handle the internalizing factors that will accompany this pandemic in students?

Answer: A little bit of rustiness. We’re going to have a little bit of catch-up to do. Social skills may be a little rusty and we may see issues with these internalized issues. How do we engage with all of these other concerns in the COVID-19 era.

Question: What are the short term verse long term effects of COVID-19 pandemic stress on children? How does stress effect the cognitive process for our children?

Answer: Heightened stress and anxiety. Kids are remarkably resilient and they’re even more resilient when parents are resilient. The more parents stay strong, the more kids will be as well.

Question: What support will parents receive who have children with learning disabilities?

Answer: Just provide a level of reassurance. Go with your parenting instinct. Be loving, reassuring. If that doesn’t do the trick, that’s when you want to step it up a little bit. Cognitive behavior therapy can help. There are some great books that help step-by-step to help kids. There’s also a program called Coping with Covid to help parents with kids that are anxious. This is without cost. Six-hour sessions to help kids who are struggling.

Question: I live in a room and have to home school my four children is there any advice you may have to help me to prepare.

Answer: It’s OK to not be perfect. None of us are teachers to start. Try to set up structure. Try to set up different places to work. Some areas make sleep based and some are work based. We want to have a place that is conducive to working. Try to set up your day. You want to try to balance your day to have some take breaks while others are learning. Noise is going to come in and the schools will provide computers. Get computers with headphones so that they can focus and try to seek resources from your kids’ schools to help with that.

Question: What mental issues arise in parents due to online assignments that are too advanced for parents to assist?

Answer: Look at how you can help and look for help with the school. Ask for options to get additional help.

Question: Are there additional resources for active military and the National Guard families?

Answer: I don’t have the specifics, but the pediatrician within your military setup can help direct you and there are a number of local mental health resources.

Question: How do I explain to my child that we are social distancing to stay safe when he sees many of his close friends out and about and the depression and loneliness that comes with that contrast in lifestyles.

Answer: It’s taking the time to explain our family values and why we are doing it. Explain there are people we trust who are saying things that we need to do to stay safe. However, there are others who are making other choices. For other age groups that might not work, but look at other choices that might work, such as speaking over a fence or with distance.

Question: How do you discipline properly when you feel your child is going through enough with pandemic depression?

Answer: I think you still have to hold the line and yeah, you have to be flexible, but the rules are the rules. You can lounge around. This is the first time I’ve worn a suit in six months...but you have to have the same standards that your family needs them to be.

Question: On child abuse situations, how can teachers and neighbors help and see signs of what’s going on?

Answer: That’s my biggest worry. Schools are historically a place to identify that something is going on. Teachers will be looking for anything that seems off, including on-edge or zoned out behavior. Teachers can reach out and look for more discussion.

Question: Some coping skills or suggestions for handling a depressed 9th grader who wants a face to face as she enters High school this year. How to handle to stress and worry of fear of child falling behind if the virtual year is extended too long.

Answer: It’s important to address it and convey empathy that this is difficult. The notion of suck it up, it could be worse can be helpful to some people, but it can feel empty. Work on the hygiene stuff first -- eating right and sleep. When people are depressed, things are thought about in the worst fashion, but look for another way to look at it. Look for a realistic approach to taking on the situation. Look at things you can do. What are things you enjoy doing? How can we get more meaning from the things you can do?

Question: My child struggled with math and reading. And he get the extra help from teachers at school but since homeschooling how can I help him.

Answer: Does your child have a specialized convene a meeting with kids on your kid’s team and find out how the school is trying to facilitate things. Reach out to the school and find out what support is available. Find out what support and advocate on behalf of your child. Look for resources online, such as tutorials that help support what he or she is learning in school.

Question: What advice can you give to parents about their mental health?

Answer: You know how you fly you see the card. if you can’t take care of yourself, it’s going to be hard. It’s OK to take time for you. It’s OK to reach out for help and find out what works. I go for a walk or a run. It’s sort of a selfish thing, but it helps ground me and enables me to take on the day. A couple things I recommend. Take on something that gives meaning and enjoyment. And it’s OK if you need help. There are some silver linings. We’re talking about mental health. We’re looking at telehealth medicine options more now. Reaching out for help is absolutely OK and a sign of strength and awareness that can help your family in the long run.

Question: How do teachers get through this time now?

Answer: Teachers have to do what is consistent with their values. What we can do for teachers is applaud them. Our teachers are frontline workers. They deserve our respect and appreciation for what they do. COVID has taught us that we need to value our educators and schools perhaps more than we ever have.

Question: How do you deal with this?

Answer: Be optimistic and hopeful. The worst thing people can do is lose hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Until then, it’s keeping a focu on that light. Look composed in front of your kids, even when you aren’t. Reach out for help as you need it. Let hope seize the day. Talk about things like our post-COVID vacation. Keep that optimism at the fore.

Question: How do you help a child who has a learning disability and cannot use a computer. And the parent is not qualified which is why the child was in school to get the needed help?

Answer: That child probably has an individualized plan, but you want to get that child’s school services providers together to discuss the situation this year and what options are available. Reach out and advocate for your child and get a plan in place.

Question: How do you help kids who will be online for multiple hours?

Answer: You have to look at ways you want to structure it. Set up timers and breaks. Make sure there are focused times and time for play. Look at the community to see how you can get help and get it in place as soon as possible.


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