How Parents Can Help Prep Their Kids' Emotional and Mental Wellbeing Over the Summer Break
The one thing that has taught many parents of school-age children during the pandemic is that students thrive academically when their social and emotional needs are met.
Now that summer vacation is approaching; we spoke with Dr. Andrew Kahn of Understood to find out how parents can help prepare their kids for the next academic year.
1. It seems that mental health has been the big topic at almost every school board election this year. However, there are not enough district-wide programs or opportunities to help K-12 as a whole. In your experience, have you seen initiatives that have worked on a district-wide level?
Over the past two decades, I’ve observed a lot of patchwork efforts and curriculum-driven initiatives to help kids build social and self-care skills without notable long-term benefits. While a variety of programming is fundamentally sound and helpful for assisting kids in developing social, emotional, self-care, and many life skills, they are often unnecessarily caught in the middle of political controversy.
The truth of the matter is that children need to feel safe, calm, and willing to take risks in school to reach their full potential. And to do that, they need to develop skills to manage frustrations, improve social/communication skills, and address their current mental health, in addition to academics. It’s critical for people to understand that social and emotional skills aren’t things that are taught instead of or in place of the curriculum, but rather they are used to facilitate improved learning and a growth mindset for students of all ages, often positively impacting a student’s academic development.
For kids with LTDs (learning and thinking differences), these skills are even more critical. Neurodivergent children are more likely to struggle with mental health challenges, particularly as they have experienced interrupted learning and limited support to manage their differences over the past couple of years. Understanding how to manage emotions is critical to their learning in school, at work, and beyond.
One NYC school that is doing a fantastic job of integrating these methods is the Brooklyn Lab School. They integrate skills for life, coping, and emotional well-being as part of their larger high-demand curriculum. Schools and districts that make these skills a core part of their mission, rather than just an added layer on top of academic achievement, are the schools and districts that will more holistically set their students up for success in school and in their adult lives.
2. Since summer vacation is almost upon us, what recommendations or tips do you have for parents who want to prepare their kids for the next school year? What about for children with learning and thinking differences?
Summer vacation is a great time to work on keeping learning fun and a part of everyday life. Engaging children in real-world exploration of nature, their environment, and community resources – like museums and libraries – can keep learning going in a less formalized manner.
An important reminder for parents during summer break is to encourage their child to continue reading when school is no longer in session. Reading can be across any form of media, so don’t discourage them from reading graphic novels, adventure games, or subtitled movies. All of these things can encourage ongoing growth of their vocabulary and comprehension skills. Nothing squashes reading interest like forcing kids to read low-interest texts in book-only formats.
Kids with learning and thinking differences are no different in this regard, and summer learning tasks should be fun and interest-driven to avoid learning fatigue. Kids with learning and thinking differences may want a “break” from their learning tasks, and this can be done by shifting learning activities to more experiential- and discussion-based tasks where parents and kids can share their interests and learning via cooperative play, shared activities, and real-world tasks like keeping score at a ball game or helping collect and count the values of cans/bottles for redemption. Real-world learning doesn’t have to be boring.
In addition, summer provides kids with learning and thinking differences an opportunity to work on building improved stress management skills away from the intensity and stressors of school. Learning deep breathing, attending a yoga class, or practicing mindfulness tasks are great ways to build emotional skills while academic stakes are lowered.
3. It was mentioned that it's essential for parents to observe and track a child's emotional response to difficult situations. Can you recommend tracking tools that parents can use to share with teachers or even share with a child's pediatrician?
I have a few recommendations for parents when it comes to helpful tools.
First is Understood’s Take N.O.T.E.
tool created with the American Academy of Pediatrics – it’s a resource for parents who think their child is showing signs of learning and thinking differences. The tool is not a replacement for a diagnostic evaluation; instead, it’s designed to empower parents to gather the information they need and seek support from practitioners. This serves as a resource for parents because the signs of learning and thinking differences aren’t always clear, and families may not know how to make sense of what they’re seeing. Take N.O.T.E is a simple step-by-step tool to help parents spot signs of learning and thinking differences and take action to support their child through prompts, checklists, and activities. The mnemonic device stands for:
- Notice if there’s something going on with your child that’s out of the ordinary.
- Observe and keep track of patterns.
- Talk with other people who can help support your child, like pediatricians, teachers, and other caregivers.
- Engage your child to get information and explore options for what to do next.
- Check out the campaign website: It’s home to a short film that highlights the perspective of a 15 year old when her parents don’t acknowledge her learning and thinking differences. The site is also home to a parent activity kit with conversation starters, resources, actionable steps, and other “real stories” to give parents the tools they need to support their kids.
- Participate in the #YouCanBeTheReason social challenge: Social media influencers The Holderness Family created an original song and kicked off the challenge on TikTok. We encourage parents to share how they have been the reason their kid thrived.
All of the related Take N.O.T.E. trackers and logs are easy ways to share observations with other key caregivers in your child’s life, like teachers and pediatricians. They can also help you, as a parent, spot patterns or trends in your child’s emotions or behaviors and help identify what supports your child may need to navigate them. And the best part is that there are Take N.O.T.E. resources for educators, too, so the child is getting support at home and school.
In addition to Take N.O.T.E. resources, talking with your child about emotions they’re feeling critical – but it can be hard. Using a feelings wheel can help children develop the language needed to describe how they’re feeling and show them that it’s okay to express their emotions.
Then, you can begin tracking those emotions. We’ve developed a tracking tool with CHC to log when your child may feel stressed or anxious, which can help them better understand what may be prompting feelings of discomfort or worry. Using tools of this nature can make it easier to find strategies to help your child manage their anxiety.
The anxiety log located on Understood.org, has three downloadables. Each one includes a filled-out sample, but it’s recommended to use in this order:
- Anxiety tracker. Parents can use the tracker to take notes on when and where their child gets anxious. Think of it as an organized diary.
- Anxiety pattern finder. This can help parents spot trends based on what was logged in the anxiety tracker. Two to three weeks of entries may be enough to help parents find patterns and start looking for ways to ease their child’s anxiety.
- Calming strategies worksheet. This worksheet can help parents think about what works best for their child. Does their child need to be near them to calm down? Or is it better to have quiet time alone? Their child may have helpful insights, so look for a calm moment to brainstorm together. Filling it out can also help parents get ready to talk with their child’s teacher or doctor, if need be.
4. Mental health within sports programs is also becoming a hot topic for parents around New York. What are ways parents and coaches can work together to ensure that mental health is a priority for school and recreational sports?
We spend so much time talking about emotional functioning and school competencies that sports are often left out of the discussion. Sports require many of the same skills kids need in the classroom – the ability to take risks, memory for keeping track of rules, and concepts like focus and practice to establish habits that help them improve in their sport.
Parents of kids with learning and thinking differences should ideally talk with their kids’ coaches about their strengths and needs, and what strategies might be helpful for them when they’re frustrated or confused. Coaches are often really thankful to receive this information in advance, as they may not have the time to figure out that their seemingly talented outfielder struggles with ADHD and may need skills to manage their focus and energy levels between innings (or batters) to help them be a successful team member.
The best coaches will always appreciate parent input on how to best manage their child’s needs while also giving parents a chance to hang back and let them manage their team during games. Teaching kids relaxation, deep breathing, and visualization skills are fantastic ways to help them enjoy sports and perform at their best, whether they have learning and thinking differences or not.
5. Tell me about the ‘Be The Reason Campaign.’ What is the goal behind the campaign, what is involved, and what is most important for parents to know?
We launched the “Be the Reason” campaign in response to some of our latest research from the Understood.org Neurodiversity and Stigma Study. We found that while the vast majority of parents acknowledged that learning and thinking differences exist, the stigmas associated with them are very real – 60% of parents reported that they’ve seen their child or another child with learning and thinking differences referred to as “lazy” or “not smart.” Not surprisingly, concern about stigma has resulted in more than half (55%) of parents with neurodivergent children admitting that they’re afraid to tell others about their child’s differences. And nearly 70% of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences said the stigmas negatively impact their child’s mental and emotional well-being.
The findings show that while parents may seem accepting of neurodiversity on the surface, there are still real barriers to building a culture of true acceptance and inclusivity. We want to help people with learning and thinking differences learn about themselves (or their children), and be able to advocate for what they need to thrive emotionally, socially, academically, and professionally. We want them to develop a healthy sense of self and become understood. And one of the first steps to this is combating stigma head-on.
Our “Be the Reason” campaign shines a light on the misconceptions around learning and thinking differences. It educates parents about neurodiversity, and it provides them with tangible resources and tools to engage with their children around these challenges.