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Harold KoplewiczBack to OpinionHarold Koplewicz

Helping challenged kids during back-to-school time

Every child faces challenges when heading back to school. But back-to-school time can be exceptionally difficult for the 20 percent of children who suffer from a psychiatric or learning disorder. The school environment can feel toxic to these children, for it demands so many things that summer activities don’t — the ability to sit still, get organized, stay on task, and adapt to a new, highly structured daily schedule. School also requires kids to separate from their parents and interact with peers — enormously challenging tasks for any child with anxiety.

This year, as any other, many children will struggle with the start of school, and a great number of them will begin showing symptoms of a mental health problem.

Here are six things parents need to know:

Mental health problems emerge at back-to-school time.

Almost all kids are stressed at the start of a new school year, but since stress can exacerbate symptoms of many mental health disorders, kids predisposed to or diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are particularly vulnerable when school begins. Imagine a child with the symptoms of ADHD; he has trouble functioning when forced to remain focused and still. Children with special needs require a lot of help learning how to manage a new, busy schedule. As a parent, you can ease your child’s anxiety by modeling confidence and calm behavior, and by imposing structure in family life (mealtime, homework and bedtime routines). But if your child shows signs of extreme anxiety and has unusual difficulties in school, you should immediately discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher as well as a mental health professional, someone who can advise on whether a child’s problems are normal and age-appropriate or require further evaluation.

Kids’ brains are changing dramatically.

Profound changes occur in the brains of children, particularly as they enter their teens. The teen brain starts “pruning” — meaning, it strengthens some synapses and eliminates many others. A temporary imbalance of this pruning in certain areas of the brain has been linked to teens’ erratic and risky behaviors. Other neural changes can increase a child’s risk for a range of mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse. It’s important to keep communication open at this vulnerable time, when teenagers are starting to look like adults, and think they are adults, but may not have the skills to manage stress. One of the best things you can do is start a dialogue with your child before the teen years begins. Research repeatedly shows that kids want to spend more quality time with their parents, so if you haven’t already started setting time aside each day to talk with your child about challenges and new experiences at school, now is the perfect moment. Ask your child, “What did you do in class today?” and “How did you spend your lunch break?”

Anxious parents send anxious kids to school.

Anxiety disorders run in families, the heritability being between 30 and 35 percent for the various types, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Plus, anxious people tend to marry other anxious people; children with two anxious parents are at especially high risk. But genetics are just one factor. Environment is another. Kids really are like sponges, absorbing the energy and adopting the behaviors around them. One of the most helpful things you can do is model calm, confident behavior, particularly while helping a child get ready for school. A child usually starts school no calmer than her least relaxed parent.

Teachers matter, maybe even more than you think.

Teachers get to know a child’s family through the child’s eyes, and they get to know how a child behaves without his parent present. This means parents can get all kinds of information about a child from his teacher — information about learning difficulties and peer problems as well as academic achievements and close friendships. Teachers are allies, and you should talk to them regularly. Good questions to ask include: “How is my child doing?” “Do you have any concerns about her social or academic skills?” and “Do you think she needs my help on anything?”

Homework time is crucial.

Young children with learning difficulties, as well as those without any documented problems, can benefit from their parents’ involvement during homework time. Parents should set aside time for a structured “homework session” each evening. A good routine might start like this: Create space on a desk to work; clean out the child’s backpack; review the day’s assignments; and discuss the homework as well as any questions about it. You can observe your children’s learning strengths and weaknesses this way while also reinforcing good study habits. Be positive and encouraging.

Don’t jump to conclusions.

Kids grow and develop at different rates. Ideally a child will acquire various skill sets —reach developmental milestones — within expected time periods, but she may develop more quickly in one area than another. Parents often compare children, and then they worry when, for example, one 5-year-old can read fluently while another can barely sound out words on the page. But a lag in one area of development doesn’t mean a child has a disorder. If you think there’s a problem with your child’s development, talk to your child’s teacher. She’s your first best resource. Remember that the average teacher has about 30 students in her class every year, so a seasoned teacher, with about 10 years of experience, can think about your child’s progress in relation to as many as 300 other kids. Good teachers are invaluable allies.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and founding president of the Child Mind Institute.