Back to school: Transitioning back to in-person interactions

Our reliance on technology for interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic might have complicated things

For many kids, returning to school in the fall can be a challenge. This year, our reliance on technology for interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic might be complicating things further when it comes to a return to in-person learning, according to UCLA Health psychologists.

"It's been quite an interesting couple of years, and there are plenty of new challenges for parents to help their kids with," says Dr. Robert M. Bilder, PhD, chief of psychology at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Like everyone else, students increasingly used electronics to interact with others during the pandemic, and some of those habits have become almost hard-wired into their daily lifestyles.

Dr. Bilder says he encourages parents to get their children involved in as many activities as possible with other kids their age, at school or away from school, to help build in-person social skills. Making sure that kids have things to do with other people during the summer can help make the transition back to the classroom easier, he says. 

"You just really want to make sure that kids have other things to do when they are not in front of a computer, to get them actually interacting with other human beings, and preferably with kids their own age, so they can build those skills," Dr. Bilder says.

Signs of anxiety

For some kids, it can be very stressful to get back to classrooms full of people when they have spent a lot of time at home. For kids of any age, there can be an increase in anxiety – and parents should look for symptoms of that, Dr. Bilder says.

"One of the most stressful triggers for people is change and going back to school is an example," he says. "All of these kids are going to be doing things differently than what they are used to, and that can be a real challenge for them."

Bilder says kids experiencing excessive stress when returning to school might benefit from counseling. However, figuring out when children experiencing psychological stress that requires professional help might be tricky.

"The answer is not always crystal clear,” Dr. Bilder says.

Symptoms of general anxiety disorder can include restlessness, being easily fatigued, being irritable and having difficulty concentrating. It also includes having headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains. It can cause sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. 

Youngsters with anxiety might also have difficulty controlling feelings of worry.

“It's a good idea to check in with a professional, like a pediatrician or a mental health professional, if a parent is concerned about their child,” Bilder said.

“Be wary of nonprofessional websites or ‘chat groups’ that may have misinformation. Professionals can help figure out how severe a problem is and help you know when professional treatment is needed."

Sticking with remote learning

While most students will be returning to live classrooms, some with health concerns will still be taking classes remotely. The Los Angeles Unified School District is giving parents and students the option to participate in "Virtual Academy Schools" this year.

For those kids, Bilder strongly recommends that parents try to ensure that these online experiences are as interactive as possible for their kids.

"It can be very easy for kids to sort of disappear and not be engaged if they are in a "Zoom" class or on some other medium. You want to avoid that," Dr. Bilder says. For example, "if there is an option to turn the camera on, you want it on, so the student is really present."

Dr. Bilder notes that studies show kids can spend more than 10 hours a day on electronics, especially when sometimes they are "multi-tasking," as in watching television while playing a game on a phone.

"That’s why you want to encourage them to get involved in other activities," he says. "Since they might have to be on their digital devices for schoolwork, you really want to limit how much time they spend on these devices when they are not doing school work."

Whether their kids are going to school or not, Dr. Bilder says that parents should ideally be on hand to help during any period of change in their children’s lives.  Of course this does not always mesh with reality given heavy demands on parents as well.  But parents are usually a key buffer for their children when confronting anxiety and change.

Parents can help explain to kids that what they are feeling is natural, that certain times can be stressful for everyone, and that it's made easier by working on the source of anxiety together.

"Be open and honest with your kids, in the hope that they also will be open and honest with you," he says.

Learn about the Youth Stress and Mood program at UCLA.

Tina Daunt is the author of this article.

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