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Poverty & Equity Thought Leadership

Are Children Emotionally Ready for School?

By: Edward M. Valentin, Ph.D., LCSW

Children across the nation are very excited to see their teachers and friends and parents are certainly ready for them to get back to a “normal” routine and be able to focus on their jobs.  We are still in a pandemic and there is a threat coming from a “Delta variant” of the COVID-19. So there are significant concerns due in part to an upward trend in hospital admissions – in particular the state of Florida.  A significant amount of mask policies and social restrictions have been relaxed but the pandemic is still a central news topic, and we are exhausted from it!

Understandably, we spent more than a year involved in isolation, viewing reports of people suffering, observing mortality rates, hyper-negative political discourse, a shift in labor culture, and economic uncertainties.   Our children witnessed and lived through this too, however children, especially those in elementary school, may be feeling that the pandemic is over and normality is here.  

What if the Delta variant or any other resulting factors divert us back to the restrictive policies we saw in 2020?  We understand that COVID has also been a social trauma and the page of the status quo of everyday living has been turned.  Essentially, what got us through the thick of the pandemic was the very phenomena that challenged us the most (aside of sickness and death) – Our social nature! While we withdrew from social connections, we came closer to our immediate families.  They were the saving pillars of this period.  We as a species are highly social and we have high levels of Oxytocin, a protective hormone that is mostly associated with social bonds.  This hormone helps us crave interactions, connections, and alliances and our children have been anxiously waiting to reconnect. Can you imagine the surge of emotions on this first week back to school?  

What are some factors to expect?

Some families may experience their children being more emotionally intense.  Expressions of positive emotions may be higher than usual — such a joy and excitement during play; but with this also may add intensity of negative emotions like anger outbursts and irritability.  Who wouldn’t get angry if their “joy” was interrupted!

The school counselors and social workers are clinically limited but they are good at detecting emotional/behavioral irregularities.  With an understanding also that school staff and teachers are also going through an irregular emotional process cycle themselves as they struggle with work/life balance, we anticipate an upward trend in human service referrals.  Though these trends alarm us, this is a good thing. This is not a matter of overreaction and referral straight to medical treatment but a response that fosters assessing what children and families need to get through these times. 

What is the Families First response?

Families First as a behavioral health organization never paused its services and real time observations of challenges families face during the pandemic.  Families First’s approach to mental health and wellness is the enhancement of assessing and building psychosocial resiliency.  Our Navigators are professionals assigned to the family to help them navigate through solution-focused objectives.  Our clinical staff focuses on mental wellness and adds resiliency building skills as clinical objectives in an individual’s service plan.  

How is resiliency measured?

The Families First Resiliency Needs Screener (FFRNS-14) is a fourteen-item resiliency screening tool that measures three main areas of psychosocial resiliency:

  1. Access to health and mental health services
  2. Connectedness – social health
  3. Future & goal orientation

Used as a first line of “Access” the Screener helps families and professional helpers understand their healthcare resources so that in time of need they are able to be connected and/or help others to access these essential resources.  Access transcends socioeconomic status.  

Whether you have healthcare insurance or not, people usually don’t dive deep into knowing all the services they are eligible for.  We tend to be reactive naturally because of shifting priorities in our day-today lives. Many become aware of some of these services once a crisis has occurred but preventive care is generally nonexistent. Families First’s Navigators pair the “Access” score with a client’s assessment of the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) to customize a service plan that helps increase the scores in this area.

“Connectedness” is a protective factor for stress related diseases.  It is also a protective factor for suicidal ideation, and mood disorders.  Connectedness, bonds, and alliance is one of the most (if not the most) fundamental survival mechanisms of humankind.  

Individuals that can master social growth are capable of significant achievements.  Connection with others is the grounds for empathy and collaboration to achieve any goal.  This concept is best known as social intelligence, which is the ability to connect with others, establish new relationships, and maintain them all in a healthy manner.  

It takes mental health support to increase scoring in this category. Between social coaching and psychotherapeutic services, the Practitioner should see improvements this category.  

“Goal and Future Orientation” is a person’s ability see their lives ahead.  Ideally, future orientation is how a person views themselves in the future as achieving their aspirations or at least being on the right track to achieve their short and long-term goals.  

Next to connectedness, future orientation is a major motivator to making healthy changes in one’s life.  A major barrier to psychosocial recovery is when the person has little to no vision or aspiration beyond what’s currently happening in his/her life.  

The Practitioner can put together a customizable plan to foster the development of the client’s ability to establish goals and aspirations and prepare a plan towards the person’s goals and objectives.

What is the recommendation for parents with children returning to school?

  • The school superintendents are the “mayors” of the school system. Visit your school district websites for policies around COVID-19.  
  • Know the school counselors and social workers in your child’s school.  These are good agents of information.  They study, observe, and respond to all kinds of social and emotional problems with children.  They are great sources for linkages to services.
  • Yes, your children have a lot of catching up academically, however you should assess your child’s social health.  Some children are accustomed to social withdrawal. Helping your children reconnect will also enhance your relationship with them.
  • Celebrate more joyful moments than hard times.  Do some self-assessment and count joyful moments and difficult situations for a few weeks.  Difficult situations indeed help build resiliency however if it’s over 50% of your time you risk that the difficult moments become the center part of your life and as a result it becomes a center part in your children’s life and can hinder their ability to mature emotionally.
  • Seek help! There’s nothing wrong with getting professional assistance.  Most human service professionals would admit life’s difficulties if they themselves did not study resolutions of social and emotional challenges.   According to our resiliency model people that seek help is considered empowerment because it takes social maturity to take a stand to make positive changes in our lives.

The Answer

Our children are certainly ready for school, for friendship, and for connections. We are ready and happy for them. We are all ready for some normalcy. Emotional readiness however takes preparation and some planning.  We have learned that events like natural disasters and health-related phenomena such as pandemics are factors that can reshape our lives.  To help us prepare for what may come and cope better with changes you should consider checking your resiliency level and how you can increase your ability to handle tough challenges life brings. As you build your personal resilience, your children will model your behaviors and will be stronger as challenging situations come their way.  Isn’t that the most peaceful thought – that our children will be okay even in the face of the harshest adversity?  


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