High school students in Massachusetts will return to school May 17th, as announced by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. They will join K-8 students who are already back in class. The return to in-person full-time learning is a welcome break for a lot of parents and kids, too. But for others, it can trigger anxiety with mornings filled with stress about the idea getting back to class.
Matt Doyle, a clinical social worker based out of Rowley and founder of The Castle Hill Counseling & Consulting Group joined GBH's Morning Edition to discuss working through school related anxiety and school refusal as well as solutions to help support children who may be struggling. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Let's talk a little bit about school refusal — what it is, what it looks like. And it's not necessarily tied to COVID.
Doyle: No, it's not necessarily tied to COVID. It's a very interesting process for so many students out there who develop these patterns over time when they have faced really big challenges around anxiety, around mood dysregulation at times — educational and learning challenges that create patterns of avoidance for students. The repeated experience of failure builds over time and creates the fight or flight response and the desire to avoid, [to] step aside, pretend this isn't happening, sweep it under the rug. That can go on for extended periods of time for students. Often, as we know, with children and teenagers, behavior comes out sideways. We don't always have the opportunity to have an eloquent description of what's going on with the internal process from kids and teenagers. We often recognize some red flags when the behavior or the emotion of the child is indicating some changes that are taking place. So for many students who had these sort of challenge areas around emotional wellbeing pre-COVID, a lot of these scenarios have really accelerated for students.
Mathieu: In terms of school refusal, that is what it sounds like, right? A child would do anything to not have to leave the house to go to school today. Now, you add the layer of COVID separation, returning after so long, not being in the same room. Boy, things start to get ever more complicated.
Doyle: Absolutely. And it's the classic bell curve in many ways where there are many students on one end of the bell curve that have kind of figured things out. And then we have students who are really in a position of having persistent, ongoing, daily emotional struggles. There are a lot of teenagers that have said statements to me in the past year around things like "it doesn't matter anyways" "this is a COVID year, It's not going to touch my record" and that really builds a narrative that can lead students to sort of throwing up the white flag, so to speak.
Mathieu: So, go away for a year, you're remote learning, you're dealing with your family, your parents, not a very real scenario, but you get really used to it. What does that do psychologically when it's time to go back and be around all those people?
Doyle: Psychologically, it has had a real profound impact on families, on students, on teachers, on the educational system in general. We have been faced with a really unprecedented psychological demand of having to maintain such high flexibility. The expectations within the educational scenario is changing on a consistent basis. What we know about kids and teenagers is: When the expectations of the adult environment are exceeding the skill level of the child or teenager, that's where we see the most problematic emotional challenges start to rise for kids.
Mathieu: When they see their parents struggling, in other words.
Doyle: When they see their parents struggling, when they are exposed to a great deal of uncertainty, when the world is feeling very unpredictable, it can feel unsafe.
Mathieu: There are stresses going to school — social anxiety that students, I suspect, all have from one degree to another. But when you go away for that long, it's kind of like something we all feel. You go on vacation for two weeks. It's weird to come back to work.
Doyle: Absolutely. And, through the eyes of a child. [For] a teenager, a one week period of time is basically like a year.
Mathieu: Are certain age is more susceptible?
Doyle: Yes, the early adolescence — sixth grade through early high school periods tend to be more vulnerable around the social impact, given that it's very much developmentally on target for that age group to be almost exclusively socially-driven. The experience of being in the group or the outgroup, the experience of inclusion and exclusion, has really profound impact on the psychology of young people in that age group.
Mathieu: Let's talk about some solutions. What can parents do to help their kids work through this?
Doyle: I find it extremely valuable at this point in time to really think about the concept of schedules. In general, clarity, concreteness, ironing out and strengthening what the pattern of the day will look like has a really valuable psychological impact on children. [Consider] deliberate wind-down periods during the night that will prepare students psychologically for shifting into better sleep patterns, for feeling more prepared for what's coming the next day, really thinking about laying the clothes out in the evening time, having technology wind down. Research and science tell us it's a really good idea to unplug about an hour before you attempt to go to sleep, [also, while] having breakfast, cuing in and dialing into what's going on with your child or teenager in the morning. I always encourage people to have honest and open communication with our kids, thinking about timing and tone.
WATCH: Social worker Matt Doyle on finding lighthearted connections with your kids