Mental health is a back-to-school priority for kids of all ages

The list of practical challenges facing families during this back-to-school season long and almost comically varied. Many of us are adjusting to a new world of desk shields and socially-distanced school buses one day, while logging our little ones into virtual Zoom classrooms from home the next day … and trying to keep them on task while we work in the next room.

We’re still prodding our kids to do homework. But now we’re also asking them if they’ve got a clean face mask in their backpack.

Being a parent is stressful right now. Being a student is stressful, too. After six months of reduced contact with friends and loved ones, people of all ages enter this uncertain season feeling more than a little off-kilter.

Last week, the Tomorrow campaign invited experts to discuss the social and emotional challenges facing students this year, as part of their ongoing series “So Now What? Helping Parents & Caregivers Navigate a School Year Like No Other.

The first seminar was geared toward families with kids in preschool through 3rd grade, while the second seminar offered resources for families of teens and tweens. For younger students, several themes emerged:

  • Young kids may be experiencing a mix of disappointment, sadness and fear during the first weeks of this school year. Validating children’s feelings — letting them know it’s OK to feel this way, and that these feelings are actually quite common — can help them feel safer, said Dr. Roberta Schomburg, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center. It can help to remind them that there are caring adults around them who are ready to serve as helpers.
  • Allow children to ask questions about anything that’s on their minds. As Fred Rogers often said, when something is mentionable it becomes manageable.
  • Routines can help. With so much in our lives disrupted right now, kids will benefit if we let them know what’s coming next.
  • If old fears are temporarily resurfacing for a child, that’s normal. “We’re bound to see a lot of meltdowns in the preschool years and even in the early elementary years,” Schomburg told the audience.

The challenges of this school year require all of us to manage our feelings. So it can help to actively work on those skills with young children this fall. During the seminar, Gina Masciola, WQED‘s director of education partnerships, pointed parents to a number of free resources that can help with introducing self-regulation skills. Many of these involve familiar characters from PBS shows.

The PBS series “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” focuses on at least one social-emotional theme in each episode. And in a new “Daniel Tiger” special, the characters find that events have been cancelled in their neighborhood for health reasons. Daniel must then deal with his disappointment and frustration. Preschoolers may find this comforting.

“Just seeing somebody else having the same experience that they have had helps them see that these feelings are universal, and there’s nothing wrong with them,” Schomburg says.

Masciola also mentioned two apps from the Fred Rogers company — Daniel Tiger for Parents and Daniel Tiger’s Day & Night, as well as Sesame Street’s Breathe, Think, Do app, which lets kids help an upset muppet monster calm down by taking deep breaths.

Digital resources like these can sometimes serve as a neutral third-party when kids and parents are both feeling heightened emotions, says Schomburg.

Digital tech was also a focus in the second “So What Now?” session for parents of teens and tweens. For this panel, RLDAA producer Dorie Taylor interviewed Jennifer Ehehalt and Michael Robb from Common Sense Media about adolescent and teen mental health.

Concerns about adolescents’ mental health were the high before COVID-19 hit, Robb explained. Those worries have grown for many people since the virus outbreak began. But often, he said, the worry is driven more by fear than by facts.


Technology can actually be a safety net for young people. Among the information Robb shared:

  • Although teens sometimes encounter bullying or other emotional issues online, they also go online to seek help. One study found that 87% of adolescents have gone online to seek out information about mental health and 64% of those students have made use of that help. And teens from marginalized groups — LGBTQ teens, for example — may find a welcoming community of friends online who bolster their emotional wellbeing.
  • Adolescents have moved online to meet all of their educational and social needs. So although parents may have a habit of taking away a child’s device when they’re not behaving, that could be more detrimental now that it represents their only access to others.
  • Because adolescents have had to replace face-to-face contact with digital connections, they may begin using social media platforms at younger ages than they otherwise would have. Though parents may want to exercise caution in allowing social media use among tweens, many parents are allowing increased social media use to help their kids feel connected.
  • Fights over screen time can be a major source of family conflict, Robb said. “And yet unlike screen time itself, which has a pretty tenuous relationship to depression, family conflict is a known predictor of depression.” Rather than worrying about screen time, consider the balance of activities your child is pursuing. “If your kids are doing the things that you already know are good for them, like going outside to exercise and get some sunshine,” Robb said, “then maybe don’t worry about counting every single screen minute.”
  • The millions of adolescents who live in low-income families or live below the poverty level are especially at risk of struggling with mental health, since their digital access may be more limited.

Overall, what you’re seeing in the real world may be the best predictor of how teens and tweens will be impacted in the digital world.

“Those teens who are struggling offline also tend to struggle online and have more negative experiences online,” Robb said. “Adolescents who are especially sensitive to social evaluation and may have what’s considered a low status online, who have a history of victimization, or bullying — those are kids who may have unique vulnerabilities as they go into online spaces.”

Common Sense has a number of resources to help families navigate the social and emotional impact of COVID-19. For more information, visit and

Watch the full “Supporting young children’s social and emotional wellness as we return to school” and “Tweens, teens and mental health” seminars here.

And register here for the upcoming So Now What? seminars, happening every Wednesday evening in September.