It’s OK to just be OK

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By Dr. Chris Rogers, medical director of Child & Adolescent Services at the Medical Center of Aurora and the current president of the Colorado Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Society.

Keeping on top of schoolwork during the pandemic is hard. Kids and their parents may need to adjust their expectations of what success looks like to stay engaged with school during these stressful times. 

We know that going to school is usually good for kids. Children thrive in an environment where they can learn and tackle appropriate challenges, which helps them develop intellectually and builds long-term mental wellness.

Though the pandemic has changed many things about our lives, it is still so important that we encourage our kids to keep learning. It is equally important that parents and kids keep realistic expectations for themselves and one another during this stressful time.

Every day I see young people who are struggling to keep up, sometimes even in classes that they used to enjoy. While many students are still adjusting to online learning, an even bigger issue is the stress and trauma caused by the pandemic. Many families are coping with the loss of a job, a favorite activity, an expected milestone, or even the loss of a loved one. We know the impact of trauma on the developing brain can affect focus, concentration, and energy – all of which can make learning overwhelming. Similarly, we hear story after story from parents who are doing their best to deal with the challenges of trying to be a caretaker, breadwinner, counselor, and teacher all at the same time. 

This year, many school districts are seeing fewer students in class-- both virtual and in-person attendance. In response to these lower attendance numbers, the state has launched a campaign urging parents, teachers, communities, and business leaders to do their part to make sure kids at all grade levels stay engaged with school.

Whether it is virtual or in-person, school provides children with structure that they desperately need now more than ever. A predictable schedule with clear expectations supports kids in many ways, from providing young students with a sense of safety and comfort to serving as an anchor in the emotionally charged time of adolescence. There is real benefit in having a structured routine, especially during an unpredictable time. Research shows that kids do best when they know what to expect from daily life. One of the things we can do to promote a sense of normalcy for our children during this pandemic is to provide a clear schedule, particularly when learning remotely. 

School also provides community that is essential to the social and emotional development of young people. Learning how to form friendships, handle conflict, and seek support from their peers is just as important for kids as learning geography or arithmetic. While we are all adapting to the need for a largely virtual world, being part of a class provides an integral sense of identity and belonging. 

One of the biggest stressors we hear about from the kids in our hospital is a sense of isolation. Without school, kids are left to feel alone when connection to their community could save them. Schools also provide vital services, especially for disadvantaged or underserved kids. In particular, mental health services are crucial to identifying issues and initiating treatment early, when outcomes are most favorable. These services can be a literal lifeline in times of stress.   

Young people may be more likely to reach out to peers, trusted teachers, or counselors in their school community when they are struggling. Maintaining access to these forms of support is crucial to combating the epidemic of teen suicide that we saw even before the pandemic began. School-age years are critical for social, physical, and intellectual development. Losing any of these years, as Governor Jared Polis has highlighted, can be devastating.

To all the kids and parents in Colorado, I want to emphasize that sometimes being just OK is OK.

The effects of trauma and stress are real, and these days, they are everywhere. This year, parents and kids alike will need to shift their expectations about school performance and success. It may not be the year to expect straight As or take that extra AP class, and that’s OK. The most important thing is that everyone in your family feels good about themselves and has fun while learning and connecting with their peers. Things will get better. Until they do, making sure kids benefit from the community, structure, and connection they get from school is the No. 1 priority. Beyond that, doing OK is a great goal for us all.  

And if anyone reading this isn’t doing OK, please know that help is out there. Reach out -- there are people who want to help: