Gear up, breathe deeply, and set that alarm.

The start of the 2021 school year is just around the corner. From refreshing home routines to supporting new school routines, local experts shared tips on how to give students the best start possible for the new academic year.

Kate Parker, Vice President of Clinical Care, COO, at Mental Health Partners, emphasized the importance of talking to students about the new school routines after their year (or more) of online learning.

“We are all trying to figure this out,” she said. “It is really important for kids to not expect things to be the same before [they] left pre-COVID. Talk about the worries and the fears…and the excitement.”

#1: Start a school-oriented home routine two weeks before the first bell rings
The shuffle of online and hybrid learning last year disrupted the normal routines of families world-wide. Jen Wilger, executive director of the Temple Grandin School, heard many stories of students studying and participating in online classes from couch cushions and bed corners. Her first recommendation for setting students up for success for the 2021 academic year was to establish a designated study space.

“Coming out of COVID, that’s important, because their school space has been their bedroom,” Wilger said. “So getting back to a designated space [means having] the supplies you need, and snacks, and a routine for working at a certain time and space with good lighting, and a comfortable chair. Kids kind of want to be independent with their work.”

Parker also recommended getting back to routines like a regular sleep time, and regular meal times. These rhythms will create a sense of normalcy for the whole family. But most importantly?

“Give yourself grace,” Parker said. “There’s no handbook for this.”

#2: Encourage strong study skills and executive function growth
Wilger recommended a gradual introduction for going back to school to help students gain confidence about their new environment.

“Start with driving by the school and playing on the playground, or walking the grounds,” she said.

One of the roots of student anxiety is curiosity about what their new environment will be like. Wilger will even encourage students to come by before the first day and meet new teachers as those teachers are available.

Wilger also emphasized the importance of helping students grow their executive function, or the mental skills people use to organize their behaviors toward a future role.

“In the academic setting, it is things like giving the right response at the right time, like not blurting out in class,” she said. “Some of our students have trouble getting started with work, so we work on helping them start and then having the stamina to persist with a task.”

Wilger also recommended helping students learn how to monitor their environment as a way to look for how to behave or respond within the classroom, and then also intentionally organizing both their physical space at school and their ideas.

#3:  Find the best shoe fit
Different schools will have different expectations for clothing and shoe requirements, so the first step is to check the rules of each institution.

“We find that most of the needs we need to meet can be filled with a good, versatile athletic shoe, something that can go to school, play sports, hit the trails and wear for everyday use,” Jason Wetzel, Managing Member at Brown’s Shoe Fit, said. “We also see a demand for lightweight slip on shoes or slipper type shoes with outdoor soles for some students that attend schools requiring indoor only shoes.”

Brown’s Shoe Fit office administrator Tia Lindholm polled the sales team at the store for their top back to school shoe recommendations. Combined, the Brown’s Shoe Fit sales team has a total of 185 years of shoe fit experience, and they’ve helped a lot of students in the last 75 years of business. Especially as fall gives way to winter, parents need to consider school requirements.

“Some schools allow their students to wear their boots throughout the day; however, many schools are now requiring their students to change into some kind of indoor only footwear,” Lindholm said.

The most important consideration for choosing new school shoes? Fit, according to the sales team.

“We also like to get kids in shoes that will give them room to grow, but still remain safe for running and playing,” Lindholm said. “Just like no two children are alike, neither are shoes. Even the same brand of shoe will vary in fit between styles. It is very important that children try on a variety of shoes to see what feels best to them.”

Remember to bring a pair of socks for trying on new school year shoes, Wetzel added.

The most popular shoes for elementary students tend to be athletic in nature, and Brown’s Shoe Fit’s top sales for these students are brands like New Balance, Keen, Teva, and Saucony. In addition to athletic shoes, middle and high school age students are gravitating to Birkenstock and On Running brands, which tend to be more fashion-oriented, Wetzel said.

#4: Schedule that sport’s physical now
Don’t wait to get in: most schools need to see an updated physical before the flurry of fall activities commence. Some medical offices will offer drop-in days focused solely on sports physicals. Many doctor’s offices are also now offering virtual sports physicals, such as Salud Family Health Centers. They have locations all throughout Northern Colorado and offer affordable care for all ages and income brackets.

#5: Head off student anxiety
Unfortunately, one by-product of COVID-19 social distancing, is that Colorado has seen a skyrocketing demand for youth mental health services, In May, Children’s Hospital of Colorado declared a state of emergency for youth mental health, including increased suicide attempts.

Parker has also witnessed a 30% increase in youth and adolescents asking for services through Mental Health Partners.

“We have been seeing a huge increase in anxiety and acuity … and eating disorders,” Parker said. “A lot of that is around the unknown and not feeling in control. When we talk about this odd year, it has really impacted how kids develop socially and emotionally, and has somewhat handicapped that.”

The first step to reducing anxiety is normalizing it.

“Call it what it is; anxiety is an emotion, and it is normal to have those worries and fear,” Parker said. “Validate those worries and fears. They may not seem very realistic, but to the child, that’s the reality. So normalize the anxiety, and talk through methods and different ways to mitigate that anxiety. Ask, does breathing help? Does this or that help? [Then roleplay] different self-care techniques.”

Around COVID-19 anxiety, Parker recommended feeding students facts. This will help create a sense of safety for them.

“Kids will be wearing masks, and people will be vaccinated,” she said. “So just give them the advice and information from the experts, because they may have some myths that they believe.”

Bonus Tip For Parents: Intentionally gather a support system

Parker also feels empathy and concern for the parents and guardians who have shouldered a heavy load with their kids this past year. She emphasized prioritizing both self-care, and prioritizing activities that give life to the whole family, such as bike rides together and exploring the outdoors.

Some ideas for parent support include intentionally seeking out family and friends for conversations about parenting struggles. Parker also recommends self-care practices such as mindfulness, breathing, and exercise.

“Kids are looking to the parents, and they are going to mirror what the parents are doing,” Parker said. “For the parents, identify your own anxiety and your worries and fears. How are you working through those issues? Make sure you aren’t putting your anxieties onto the kids.”

Mental Health Partners will be working with both BVSD and St. Vrain school districts to offer some training and Q&As around student mental health, Parker said. Those events aren’t scheduled yet, but she asked parents to keep an eye out for those events.

By Rhema Zlaten, for Raised in the Rockies