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Family Help Desk Q&A

Your partners at the Yale Child Study Center and Scholastic are here to help families and educators with your specific questions about coping with the current crisis, and beyond. Email your non-emergency questions to the below email address, and we will have expert clinicians and educators respond by email within two business days. We will also share your question anonymously in this Q&A bank, so that others can learn from the collected responses.

Submit question: YCSC_Scholastic_Collaborative@scholastic.com

Family Help Desk Questions & Answers

My Daughter Can’t Stop Worrying

Question:
I’m writing about my daughter, who is 12 years old. We’re staying home together and we are all safe and healthy. Even so, she is worrying way too much! She overthinks everything and is always checking on me. Although she’s in 7th grade, she advanced to 9th grade in math. Perhaps because of that, she was bullied a lot. She’s organized and does well at school. She seems happy, smiles a lot, and gives hugs. We’re trying to keep active. But I don’t know what to do to keep her from being overly anxious. Do you have any suggestions or resources?

Answer:
To answer your question, we turned to Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D. Dr. Lebowitz studies and treats childhood and adolescent anxiety and is Director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center. He replied:

Many children are going to be experiencing elevated anxiety and worry during this time. When children are anxious it is natural for them to look to their parents to help them cope and feel better, for example by asking worried questions, even repeatedly.

We recommend responding by showing your child you understand and accept that they are worried, but encouraging them to cope with the anxiety rather than trying to alleviate it by repeatedly providing reassurance.

For example, you could say “I get you’re feeling really worried right now, and that’s natural, but I think you can cope with it and I’m sure you’ll feel better soon”

Children may still prefer you actually answer the question, but research shows that providing constant reassurance does not actually lower anxiety over time, and it’s better for her to learn that she can handle worried thoughts even without your help.

If the anxiety becomes too severe it may be necessary to consult a mental health provider who can teach additional strategies. In the meantime you can teach your child some simple skills by practicing relaxation together and taking slow deep breaths when feeling anxious.

Wondering About Grade-Level Retention

Question:
My granddaughter is in 1st grade in San Francisco public schools. Ellie is the youngest in her class and just made the age cutoff for 1st grade by 9 days. She was somewhat distracted last year in kindergarten but has made lots of gains this year and enjoys learning in school (but not doing homework after a long day). It’s a pretty demanding curriculum but she has a wonderful, sensible teacher. Her parents are doing their best (which is very good!) with home schooling and managing work and two other younger children.

After all this coronavirus interruption, we are wondering about the advantages of retention. What are your very general thoughts on this topic? What does the research recommend?

Answer:
Your granddaughter sounds like she has been thriving with wonderful schools and extended family support. When school resumes, I would expect a lot of resources to be devoted to helping kids make up for lost time— and remember, kids will all be in the same boat. Ellie was doing well before the school closures and was on an upward trajectory, so I’d suggest that her family keep doing all of the things that are already working wonderfully.

Dr. Walter Gilliam of the Yale Child Study Center notes that research overall does not support the benefits of grade-level retention. In fact, being “held back” is more associated with low self-esteem issues, which can in turn impact learning. However, Gilliam acknowledges that we simply don’t have research on situations like this current crisis. The negative emotional impact of retention might be lessened if many other children were also retained.

On the general topic, Gilliam also advises that children are sometimes “held back” because they are young for their grade (as in Ellie’s case) in the hopes that the extra time will give them a leg up. Overall this practice does yield modest impacts on test scores; but those benefits are small and consistently wash out by around third grade. And there may be some disadvantages down the road with having your high school child being the first in her class to be able to drive or other rites of passage!

On the whole, with supportive parents and grandparents like Ellie has, she will also have plenty of opportunities now and over the summer to make academic gains. I’d focus equally on her social emotional state and helping her cope with the stress that surrounds her amidst all of the changes.

The best way to help Ellie stay on track academically and thrive emotionally is through reading. Make sure she spends plenty of time being read to and reading independently. As a long-distance grandparent, try some video read-aloud sessions as well. Share stories from your own past, and ask her to tell tales from her time at home. Literacy, including storytelling, is one of the best tools for academic growth and for weathering the current crisis.

Lastly, you mention she has a wonderful teacher. It’s tough to miss that sense of closure that children usually get at the end of a school year, before moving on. I hope her school might address that when they do start back up, by having some overlap with children’s existing teachers playing a role in the hand-off to the next grade. Finally, all of which is to say – it’s all so individual, and her parents in consultation with her teacher will surely know best!