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For many kids, the start of a new school year brings the excitement of new teachers, notebooks, highlighters, and school bags.
For parents, those lazy summer days fade quickly as they’re launched into a busy new schedule with bus rides, school activities, lunch prep, and helping their children navigate academic pressures.
Today’s caregivers face different challenges with the return to school than they did in past years. There are continued concerns over academic and social-emotional gaps stemming from the pandemic, an emerging teen and adolescent mental health crisis, kids not wanting to attend school, and concern for their children’s physical safety.
It’s essential to provide employees with a supportive, healthy work environment and ensure they and their dependents have access to the mental health support they need—not just at the beginning of the school year, but year-round.
Back-to-school challenges for families
Before the pandemic, ADHD, anxiety, behavior problems, and depression were the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders in children aged 3 to 17.
In 2020, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among 10 to 14-year-olds and the third-leading cause for 15 to 24-year-olds. During February and March of 2021, ER visits for suspected suicide attempts saw a significant 50.6% increase in girls aged 12 to 17 compared to the data from 2019.
School refusal—having emotional difficulty remaining in or attending school—impacts 2-5% of all school-aged children between 5 and 6 and those between 10 and 11. This issue has led to a notable rise in absenteeism across schools nationwide.
Furthermore, public schools continue to face challenges in filling critical teaching positions.
According to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, as of October 2022, 18% of public schools had one teaching vacancy, while 27% had multiple teaching vacancies. On average, each public school had two vacant teaching positions, and 4% of all public school teaching positions in the country remained vacant.
In addition to these concerns, the increase in school shootings has deeply impacted parents and children.
Although schools remain reasonably safe, the Statista Research Department reported 153 school shootings in the United States as of June 2022, with only two of these incidents classified as active shooter situations. The highest number of active shooter incidents in schools occurred in 2018, with 11 active shooters.
6 ways employers can support employees during the school year
It may seem like your employees’ kids returning to school is a home issue, not a workplace one. But when the family system is in crisis, the impact can be felt by all—including coworkers and managers.
A recent survey found that mental health is number one on the list of parental worries. Four in ten parents with children under 18 are very or extremely concerned their children might struggle with anxiety or depression.
Another survey reports that 53% of working parents have missed work at least once per month to deal with their children’s mental health. This could impact the employee’s job performance and increase an employer's medical spending.
Here are six ways to support your working parents as their kids go back to school:
- Build awareness of the importance of prioritizing the mental health needs of a family system
- Create supportive policies, like flexible working hours that allow employees to begin their workday before their kids wake up and finish it after they go to bed
- Offer a comprehensive benefit with fast access to mental health support to meet the ever-growing needs of both your employees and their dependents
- Create a culture of belonging that prioritizes the mental health needs of all employees and their families
- Know the needs of your employees and the challenges they may face during the workday, such as school meetings, appointments to address therapeutic needs, sleepless nights, and fatigue
- Hold informational sessions or provide resources on parenting topics such as the warning signs of children and teen mental health distress, common child and adolescent mental health disorders (anxiety, ADHD, depression), how to effectively communicate with your child, or bullying prevention
As a final step, here’s an educational resource you can provide your employees to help them navigate and manage back-to-school challenges and fears. This could be emailed or presented during a dedicated session to show working parents how much you support and care about them.
Learn the warning signs of mental health distress in your children
These can include:
- A change in behavior, weight, sleep, or grades
- An increase in irritability, anger, and physical pain
- Disorganization, mood swings, risky behavior (like self-harm and substance use), and excessive crying or restlessness
Be mindful of situational triggers that can cause a mental health crisis
These can include:
- A loss such as death, divorce, romance, and dignity
- Victimization or exposure to violence
- School crises, such as discipline or academic pressure or stress
- Family crises such as abuse, domestic violence, running away, or a highly conflictual relationship with any family member
Focus on what you can control, and let go of what’s outside your control
Become involved at your children’s school(s) and in your community to better understand their respective crisis responses. Attend school board and community meetings, join health and safety committees, and provide insights and feedback.
Find out the response times from your local law enforcement and how they plan to address a crisis:
- What are the different levels of security for lockdowns vs. sheltering in place?
- What are the bullying prevention programs and protocols for the school district?
Know that drills help children and teachers prepare for a crisis
Fire drills and natural disaster drills for earthquakes and tornadoes were once viewed as over-reactionary. But these help children and teachers be prepared as much as possible so they know what to do if there is a crisis to prevent injuries.
Active shooter drills serve this same purpose. Encourage your children to pay attention during these drills and take them seriously.
Develop a family crisis plan
Just as you prepare your family for a house fire, develop a plan with what each person in the family needs to do and where to meet if something goes wrong at school or during an event.
Consider how this plan may be adjusted if you have children with special needs. Speak with the school to address these concerns and include any accommodations in your 504 or Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Continue to build open communication with your child
Discuss who they consider their most trusted adult if you are unavailable during a crisis. If you become aware that you’re another child’s trusted adult, be prepared to act quickly if they need you, and know that your relationship could be life-saving to them.
Talk with your children about their worries and concerns at the start of the school year and throughout the year. What we fear as adults may not be what is worrying our children. It’s often simpler things like using a combination lock, navigating a new campus, or finding someone to sit with at lunch.
Finally, discuss with your employer the importance of a supportive work environment and access to the mental health care needs of a whole family.
Learn how leaders can help reduce burnout in working parents and empower them to find joy in both their roles.