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How to help ease your child's fears and anxiety about returning to class

Many kids are back to in-person learning, and most are also still wearing masks and social distancing, which can create anxiety and stress.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Heading back to school is an exciting and often stressful time for both children and parents, but that anxiety and stress can lead to a difficult school year.

Many kids are back to in-person learning, and most children are also still wearing masks and social distancing in the classroom. 

With that can come anxiety and stress, so psychotherapist and brain health expert Dr. Teralyn Sell says the best way to start easing those fears is to talk to them.

"Asking your kid things like, 'What was the most challenging part of your day, what was the best part of your day, what do you need help with tomorrow," Sell said. "It gives them opportunities and prompts them to express what's going on inside of them."

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Dr. Sell says children who are anxious about school tend to procrastinate, may begin fighting with parents over doing homework and often have problems sleeping.

To begin helping them, it's important for both parents and teachers to recognize more of those typical warning signs, such as a disengaged child. 

"Someone who might be tying their shoes too long and might not want to participate in reading or math," Sell said. "Or a chatty person because those are all types of disengagement." 

Some of these things may sound familiar because we tend to do the same, but we have to remember that a child isn't yet equipped to handle the same problems as adults.

"We allow ourselves maybe the freedom and opportunity to call into work if we don't want to go," Dr. Sell says. "But our kids, when they don't want to go we say, 'You have to go.' We're pushing them to do something they don't want to do, which is OK, but if it's bigger than that, then we have a problem."

RELATED: Fremont Middle School goes remote for 1 week due to COVID-19 cases, over 100 quarantines

Here are Dr. Sell's top six tips to help keep the stress at bay so you and your child can have a successful school year:

Tip #1: Keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule even on the weekends  

Well before the start of the school year, you should be transitioning away from staying up late and sleeping in. A child and teen's body relies on adequate sleep to maintain alertness and the ability to retain new information. Many times parents allow their children to change their sleep habits on the weekend which negatively impacts their sleep for the following week. Stay consistent with their schedule and with your own. 

Tip #2: No sweets before bedtime 

This is a biggie! Saving sweets and carbs for a bedtime snack sets your child up for poor sleep quality. This is due to the role of sugar and reactive hypoglycemia. The rise and fall of blood sugar will kick up adrenaline and wake your child up in the middle of the night or way too early. It might even cause them to not be able to fall asleep in the first place. Instead opt for a high protein snack before bedtime to keep your child sound asleep all night. 

Tip #3:  Pay attention to breakfast and lunchtime  

A brain that is well fueled will function better, longer. A well fueled brain will also help with behavior. Make sure that breakfast is high quality, protein filled. Sugary and carb loaded breakfasts will ultimately cause your child to run out of 'gas' and this is when they become sluggish and are more likely to engage in undesirable behaviors. Do the same for lunch. Pack lunch with your child and offer them some options that you are both in agreement with. If your child takes a hot lunch, go over the menu and discuss some really good options they might have together. Make nutrition part of your daily conversation. 

Tip #4: Take the heat off of grades 

Parents, did you know that your child's grades in elementary, middle and even high school do not define the potential of the person they will become. Too often I hear parents pushing their kids to get A's and take advanced placement courses when they really aren't necessary. Don't pay your kids for grades, instead pay attention to your kids. Have evening talks about the best parts of the day, the challenges they are having and what they are looking forward to instead of only worrying about grades.

"Look at things like resiliency." Dr. Sell says, "How is your kid bouncing back from a poor grade on a test? How are they doing how are they emotionally doing, how can they do better to prepare. that type of thing." 

Tip #5: Don't overcommit  

Kids need breaks too. If you have them signed up for every single after school activity, you are likely just introducing stress on the entire family. Instead pick one or two things to participate in for the entire year. That will reduce your kids stress load as well, and reduce your own.   

Tip #6: Don't be a hypocrite 

Yes, you are the adult, but you are also setting the example for your kids. If you expect them to put their electronics down, eat differently before bed and have a set bedtime and wake time, you do the same. Instead of arguing about why you can do it differently, do it with them. Ultimately it will help your sleep too.

Remember, kids feed off of your emotional energy, so If we're stressed, they'll be stressed; and Dr. Sell says the best way to help them is to stay calm ourselves.

"We are way better at maintaining these things for our kids then we are for ourselves, but if we're all happy and healthy, chances of that emotional problem keeping in is going to be less."