Carolina Alban-Stoughton 

Director of Communication & Engagement 
Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce 

Audra Wallace MD, LPCC

After a year of learning in front of screens, many children are getting ready to go back to school in person. While this should be exciting for students and a relief for many parents who had to turn into tutors and teachers at home, experts have suggested children may be experiencing some anxiety about going back. To answer many questions about the upcoming in-person school year, we reached out to Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, National Board Certified Counselor and Credentialed School Counselor, Audra Wallace MS, LPCC, who is part of Coherence Associates Inc.

What is the impact online learning has had on students in our community?

Delayed development academically, social-emotionally and in brain development . One study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that began in 2018, shows that children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests. Children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, which relates to critical thinking and reasoning. Researchers hypothesize that the results show a delay in development through a narrowing in children’s interests which limits their types of exploration and learning. With young children it can be difficult to become engaged in less entertaining types of activities which foster the imagination, creativity and exploration of their environment. The developmental delay that can result are appropriate social skills. Using mostly screens is like developing only one set of muscles at the expense of the rest of the body.

Are there any differences between age groups/grades?

In normal development for the different grade levels, elementary students would be figuring out how to read, write and do math. Socially they are trying to learn to interact with each other, learning empathy, controlling impulses, understanding different viewpoints, fitting in, cooperative skills, values and beliefs, and independence.

Normal development in middle school students would be refinement in all the above areas with an emphasis on developing an acceptance of who they are, torn by wanting security and exploring independence, and learning to manage changes that come with puberty.

Normal development for high school students is all about refining and perfecting communication, social cues, independence, managing confusing emotions, self acceptance and self in a larger social context.

That’s all normal – the amount of screen time our children has experienced during the pandemic have definitely delayed “normal” development. How much? We aren’t sure yet and likely depends on the individual child and their family. Overall in both children and even adults we are finding that regulating emotion especially anger, sadness, and anxiousness has become very difficult. People have become extremely reactionary in general.

With the proliferation of and dependence on screens, how can we ease kids out of them?

Limit screen time, get outside with fun activities, create no screen times such as the meal time, family time and bedtime. Start to create family excursions to public places to reacclimate children on navigating public places and debrief the success or not of the outing.

What are the signs parents should be paying attention to that may indicate the student is anxious about going back?

Red flags are lack of sleep, irritation, and lack of willingness to comply with expectations.

What is the best way to prepare kids to go back to in-person schooling?

Implement a schedule and discipline that mimics the school routine and schedule. Discipline and structure equal safety for children and help them to negotiate new situations. Talk about what it is going to be like to go back to school – both what they are looking forward to doing and what they might not be excited about. Walk through solutions to possible difficult scenarios. Remind children of resources and strategies that they can use to foster resiliency: Mentally – awareness and adaptability and positive thinking; Physically – sleep, nutrition, and exercise; Socially – connection, communication and support; and Spiritually – core values, perseverance and perspective.

How can we make it exciting for little kids to go into a larger setting?

Little kids are generally the most resilient of us all. They do not have enough context in the world yet to do some of the awfulizing that older children and adults do. Talk about the fun new opportunities that are now available once they are back in person.

How can parent engagement with the student’s school help students as they go back in person?

I feel like this depends on the school. The best to do is to keep communication open with teachers and hopefully your school administration will keep parents overly informed.

Going back to school after vacation is always difficult. How much more difficult is this time around?

We will have been on a 17 month break from in-person school, our children have encountered a delay, social-emotionally, academically and physically. Getting your children back into structure is always more difficult but the structure and discipline and routine will make all the difference in this next transition. Start to teach children resilience skills and their bounce back to normalcy will be much more smooth.

We wish all the children in our community a safe return to school!