UW Health psychologist offers coping mechanisms for students ahead of new school year

This is the first time in two years students are expected to together in the classroom full-time
Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 6:14 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Walking down the hallway on the first day of school can be nerve racking for students.

“It’s a large transition between the freedom of flexibility of summer to more of the routine and rhythm of school,” said Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, a Distinguished Psychologist at UW Health.

Dr. Mirgain said anxiety can start to creep up and impact a child’s sleep, mood and focus. However, parents can step in before school starts this week by paying attention to routine.

“Children thrive with structure, so having that routine in terms of a dedicated bed time. There might be a few more nights left until school starts, so think about transitioning that child to an earlier bed time. A well rested child will do overall better in his or her life,” said Dr. Mirgain.

She advises parents to spend time talking about school expectations with learning and COVID safety, especially after kids have had a big shakeup to their learning routine because of the pandemic.

Dr. Mirgain recommends parents to think of the acronym G.L.A.D. to strike up a conversation. Ask your child what they’re grateful for, one thing they learned that day, what they accomplished and something that delighted them. A good time for this exercise would be during dinner.

If you’re child is struggling with anxiety, Dr. Mirgain shared a coping mechanism. She calls it “Belly Breathing”. A child can breathe in for four seconds and then breathes out for six seconds.

“That kind of mindful breathing, a child can do as they’re walking in to school or just sitting down in the classroom or before a test. It can really fuel better performance and strengthen mood and lower some of that stress and anxiety,” she said.

Dr. Mirgain said principals and teachers should also keep an eye on students’ mental health.

Greg Hartjes, the Superintendent for the Appleton Area School District, said student mental health is a priority for the district.

“Certainly we have counselors. We have a program we work with through the united way that provides counselors in many of our schools,” said Hartjes.

Dr. Mirgain said having school counselors become part of a child’s day to day routine can be a great resource for success.

“We want kids to really just be kids. And the more the child feels safe and supported by adults around them, the more our children can focus on their jobs of just enjoying childhood and learning and really moving in the direction of their potential,” said Dr. Mirgain.