How to support CPS students worried about going back to school

Chicago Public Schools is reopening classrooms for kindergarten through fifth grade Monday. Giving students a sense of transparency and protection is essential to smoothing this transition, mental health experts say.

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Students walk to Mason Elementary School after an 11-day Chicago Teachers Union strike ends Nov. 1, 2019.

Students walk to Mason Elementary School in November of 2019, months before schools shut down for the pandemic. Students will return Monday for the first time since last March.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Some Chicago Public Schools students are counting down the hours until Monday’s in-person reopening after nearly 12 months of remote learning.

For others, returning to the classroom brings anxiety and fear.

“There is nothing wrong with being a little bit afraid or a little bit stressed — it actually could be super motivating for us,” said Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Chicago. “The challenge is when the stress becomes so overbearing that it paralyzes us from learning, from engaging, from going.”

Social anxiety, separation anxiety and fear of the virus are just some of worries swirling around the heads of some students and families as CPS schools reopen in-person learning for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Transparency on the school day and reminding students of their support system are critical to helping smooth the transition, according to mental health experts.

Beyond talking through what children should expect as they head back to the classroom, James said parents can start practicing social interactions through small outings, demonstrating safe ways to talk with people outside of their families.

Dr. John Walkup, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, said some parents might see their children, especially ages 6 to 10, exhibiting separation anxiety. These children have taken comfort in the home as a “protected environment.” Even before the pandemic, these children often struggled returning to school after winter break or even going back on Monday after a weekend, Walkup said.

“They worry about when they are separated, that something bad will happen to them or their parents,” Walkup said. “When it comes time for them to get ready to go back to school, it’s going to be a big challenge for those kids.”

Having a structured daily routine is the “best thing” for children during the pandemic, Walkup said, including those experiencing any anxiety around returning to the classroom. This includes set wake-up and bedtimes and set times for meals and exercise of some sort. Without a plan for the day, students can quickly fall “out of sync,” he said.

School counselors, teachers and parents should recognize there is no “one-size-fits-all” response to returning to school, said Brandon Combs, executive director of Erika’s Lighthouse, which provides educational resources on childhood and adolescent depression. Trusted adults need to be prepared to talk through individual students’ unique challenges, he said.

“Just because we’re back in school, we can’t just suddenly paint this rosy picture,” Combs said. “Students, in particular, have really gone through some trauma. They’ve had some really challenging experiences, and it’s going to take time to process that.”

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