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Rollins College Psychology Professor Sharon Carnahan Says Routine Is Key During New School Year


Starting a new school year can be stressful but this one is particularly so as families navigate online learning, the pandemic and financial hardships. 

For some children the stress can lead to trouble sleeping, weepiness, problems eating and a lack of activity. 

As schools begin to reopen in Central Florida, 90.7 WMFE spoke with Rollins College Psychology Professor Sharon Carnahan about supporting kids’ mental health. 

Read the full conversation below.

Danielle: What can parents do to minimize stress?

Prof. Carnahan: Parents should remember that their children are very flexible beings. So parents should be rehearsing and going over the procedures their children will be using in school, and making sure they feel comfortable and confident about their own behavior heading into this new setting.

Danielle: Tell me more about setting up these routines.

Prof. Carnahan: Children like things that are predictable, right? And we're sending them back into an environment that's going to be very unpredictable and very new to them. So getting as much information about what's going on at school as possible, and helping the child to understand the new routine, and talk through and rehearse the new routine, and being sure to continue to provide routines at home. Even if you feel pretty overwhelmed and way out of your routine, so that meals happen at regular times, bedtimes happen at regular times, and there's time to turn off all the electronics and go run around the house. And that you have a predictable daily routine at home.

Danielle: And how can kids make up for missed socialization?

Prof. Carnahan: You know, just because we're quarantined doesn't mean we have to be socially isolated. Help your children write letters to friends, use the telephone, use Zoom. Research also shows that the family dinner table is an important social mediator of sadness and depression in the home. Unbelievable, but just sitting down and having dinner with your family and no electronics every single night provides resilience.

Danielle: How can parents start a conversation about mental health?

Prof. Carnahan: Even five-year-olds have an understanding of the pandemic. And simply to sit down and say what do you know? Tell me what you know. What do you think about what our country is doing right now to manage the pandemic? What is COVID-19? What do you think about kids going back to school? Who do you know who's going back? Who do you know who's staying home? What do you know? Ask the child to tell you what they know. Okay, if you make your home a safe space in which to talk about tough stuff, then when the tough stuff comes along, they'll talk to you and not somebody else.

Danielle: How can they get help for a child who's struggling?

Prof. Carnahan: Both attention-related problems and mental health problems can have physical reasons or physically related reasons. So the first step is to go to your child's pediatrician and get an exam and ask questions and rule out anything medical. And then the second step is to contact a mental health provider. You know, we know an awful lot about helping children with anxiety and depression now, and parents should not hesitate to reach out to get help from licensed care providers.

Listen to the full conversation by clicking on the clip at the top of the page.

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.