Oncoming school year an emotional test for some

Back-to-school season is here, with children in several districts resuming classes this week.

Just as teachers and faculty are preparing to welcome new classes of young minds, each incoming student must prepare to grapple with a range of complex emotions and concerns in the coming months.


‘A big transition’

School counselors tend to meet more anxious or struggling students from the end of September into October, said Joleen Sundquist, a clinical supervisor and therapist with Community Counseling Center in Ashtabula Township, who oversees all the center’s school counselors and therapists in each county district.

“(That’s when) teachers are starting to recognize concerns or parents are seeing a change in behavior and reach out for added support,” she said. “We can certainly work with the school and contact parents to talk about referrals, so we can link them to resources in the schools.”

However, Sundquist assures parents some level of anxiety is healthy.

“It’s kind of our body’s natural barometer that tells us, ‘This is something new. You need to be cautious going into this,’” she said. “When it begins to interfere with a child’s daily functioning — that’s when people should be concerned.”

In early childhood education, it’s often separation anxiety leading to school fears. Sundquist said “it’s a big transition” from spending all day with parents or caregivers to a different set of rules governed by different people.

“My niece is scared of a bully, going into kindergarten from preschool,” John Cox wrote on a Star Beacon Facebook page post about back to school anxiety.

“This is so wrong,” Renae Picard replied. “Something needs to be done. No 6-year-old should be afraid of a bully. No child should be afraid to go to school.”

Sundquist said bully culture and youth awareness about it is more common today than it was 15 years ago. TV and internet programming aimed at children often focuses on older, middle- or high-school age students. Young children with older siblings are also more likely to know how bullying feels, she said.

She said the most important support parents can provide children afraid of bullying is validation — “validating that what they’re going through is difficult for them.” She said parents should teach their students to focus on their strengths, instead of brushing off their fears or urging them to “toughen up.”

“(Help) them learn what makes them resilient as people and how these resiliency factors can help them work through whatever their challenges are,” she said, adding, “It’s important for people that are in their child’s life to not minimize what the child is going through. (Encourage) them to reach out … to talk to a safe or trusted adult.”

Other students struggle to adjust to the school “routine,” she said. If their home life is relatively unstructured, a structured school setting can be “overwhelming.” No single child is alike and each student exhibits their own behaviors that indicate how they cope.

“Some children may act out. You may see disruptive behavior,” she said. “Other children may withdraw — they may shut down, they may not interact socially.”

Others might start exhibiting physical symptoms such as head or stomach aches or vomiting. Though those can be physical symptoms of stress, Sundquist said they should be checked by a doctor first.

She said it’s largely up to parents to recognize when something’s wrong — they know their children best.

“Any behavior or presentation that’s out of the ordinary for that child — that’s when you want to start asking if they’ve got something on their mind; what do they need to talk about?” she said.


Time for bed

Adjusting back to the school sleep schedule is also vital for emotional and mental health, Sundquist said. Lack of sleep affects mood, concentration and knowledge retention. The same goes for adults who don’t get enough “Zs”, she said.

“We’re kind of foggy and grumpy. Children are no different — they get foggy and grumpy,” she laughed.

With some districts starting back up this week and the rest next week, Dr. Jonathan Oliver, sleep medicine specialist at Ashtabula County Medical Center, said now’s the time for parents to start adjusting their students’ sleeping schedules.

Studies have linked sleep deficit to poor decision-making, meaning it could affect students’ social interactions — leading to depression or mood swings — or their grades, he said.

“Our memories are consolidated while we are asleep, so sleep is a key factor in retaining what is learned from day to day,” he said. “We strengthen our memories and learning ability by getting the right amount of sleep.”

That’s between nine and 11 hours each day for children, eight and 10 hours for teens and seven and nine hours for college students, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If school starts at 7 a.m., that means students should ideally have a bedtime between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., depending on their age.

Children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, which can lead to diabetes or heart disease, Oliver said. Lack of sleep also hinders the body’s immune system and hormone production.

Tired bodies often crave food or drinks high in calories or carbohydrates to make up for lost energy, said ACMC pediatrician

Dr. Sathish Adigopula. And energy drinks are not the solution for teens or preteens, ACMC doctors say — the high caffeine content and other additives could lead to “adverse side effects,” or even heart problems.

Kids who struggle to fall asleep at a regular time often need a bedtime routine, Oliver said.

“The biggest factor for children (and adults) today affecting sleep is the phone, tablet or portable computer we take to bed,” he said. “We can think we are winding down by climbing into bed to read or chat with friends or play games, but in reality we are just prolonging the time our brain is engaged and active.”

Oliver recommends sticking to the same bedtime and wake time each day; “ditching distractions” with bright screens; taking a warm bath or some quiet time in a dimly lit room; and avoiding late-day naps, meals or exercise, as well as caffeine.

Though some students lament back-to-school season as an end to summer vacation freedoms and late mornings, some kids in the county are more than ready for it.

Kelly Kantola said her son, an incoming eighth-grader at Conneaut Middle School, “loves going back to reconnect with his friends.”

Tiffany Irizarry-Segarra, whose children are in pre-K and first grade, said the new school year always begins with a shopping trip.

“My kids get excited picking out their own clothes to their taste,” she said on the Star Beacon Facebook page. “They then ask every day from then on if it’s the day they go to school. If not, they insist on doing homework. So I’ve been going through more work pages this week than I have all summer.

“They are excited.”

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