We Set The Weather: Helping Children Stay Mentally Healthy in a Time of Uncertainty


How can my child maintain relationships with friends and family? How do I explain what we see on the news? What can I ask to find out if my child is coping well with changes?

These are just a fraction of the questions parents across the country are grappling with as they navigate the 2020-21 school year during a pandemic. We asked our social workers and KIPP parents to share their advice, stories, and wisdom on how to address the many social and academic concerns brought up during COVID-19. Below you’ll find their thoughts on these topics alongside parent narratives from life in quarantine in Camden and Newark. 

On how to explain the uncertainty of these times to children.

Taylor Wegmann, a social worker at KIPP Whittier Middle,encourages parents to think about their child’s age and developmental progress when they approach a conversation about COVID-19. “My recommendation is always to be as open and honest as is appropriate for your child’s age and development,” she said. “For example, it’s appropriate to talk to your child about the severity of the pandemic, without discussing all of the symptoms of a severe case of the virus, which might make them feel anxious.”

Understanding how the virus spreads is also important to get kids on board with social distancing practices. In Newark, KIPP SPARK Academy parent Shana Boyd-Merisier found that her daughter had misconceptions about the virus and how it was spreading, so she had each member of her family hold hands one-by-one and explained that each link represented a potential passing of the virus. “By the end, she understood that it didn’t matter where the virus had originated—it was possible for us to spread it to people we loved, even if it was an accident. That visual really helped,” said Boyd.

Social workers say that parents should do their best to model social and emotional wellness. Behavior Analyst, Elizabeth Callahan said, “Find ways to ensure you’re coping well, because we set the weather. Everyone responds differently to stressful situations, and your responses will teach your child how to cope during stressful times.”

On helping children as they cope with the lack of socialization with friends and support networks at school.

In Camden, KIPP Whittier parent Tinneesha Reed and her family are taking full advantage of technology to stay in touch with family. “We’ve had Zoom birthday parties. My child’s grandmother is high-risk and we meet with her through Zoom regularly,” said Reed. And it wouldn’t be a Sunday night in the Reed household without a dance party. “Every Sunday night after dinner, they FaceTime with their three cousins and we all have a dance party together. It feels good to connect like that,” she added.  

Director of Social Work and Student Support Sheyla Riaz agrees that technology is a great way to create small moments of joy. “For those kids who just don’t want to spend a ton of time on FaceTime—it can help to get them excited to share small moments in their day. For example, if a teenager asks if the malls are open, I would say something like, ‘I’m not sure but let’s call Aunt Tricia and ask.’ For younger kids, I would have them share their drawing with their favorite uncle – i.e., ‘Let’s call Uncle Lewis and show him your cool drawing,’” said Riaz.

Callahan suggests families follow in Tinneesha’s footsteps—but also consider low-tech ways to stay in touch. “Families can go old-school with a pen pal—pick a friend or family member and write or send them pictures,” said Callahan.

On approaching your child to find out if they’re doing okay.

Every family differs in how often they talk about difficult topics and emotions. But Riaz says there’s a variety of ways to do this effectively. “For families where this is not part of the daily conversation, it may help to start by asking their child about how a certain character felt during a TV show you watch. This opens the door to talking about others feelings,” said Riaz. “It can also start with a “how was your day?” And as they are sharing, we can ask more open-ended questions like ‘what was that like for you?’” Riaz added.

Setting time aside daily to check-in on emotions is something Reed does with her children in Camden. “I try to create space for them to talk and process how they’re feeling and I try to encourage these conversations over dinner as a family,” said Reed.

On signs a child might be struggling to cope.

“Anxiety and depression in children looks much different than it does in adults,” says Wegmann.  “Depending on their age, children might not yet have the emotional vocabulary to express how they are feeling verbally. Instead, changes in behavior are more reliable indicators that your child is struggling,” she added. Additionally, Wegmann says this behavior can manifest physically (headaches, stomachaches, problems sleeping) or behaviorally (increased tantrums, irritability).

Callahan encourages parents to look for signs, because often kids won’t come right out and say it, but their behavior may give us cues. Look for things like, excessive crying or irritation, difficulty with attention or concentration, poor sleep habits or school performance, or a return to previously outgrown behaviors (like bedwetting) if they’re concerned about their child.

Family Life During COVID-19

“As a parent, it became an exciting challenge to keep them educated and deal with the very real emotions they’re feeling, as they try to understand what’s happening in the world. This summer, we planted a garden. We watched them bloom and grow, we harvested them, and now they’re cooking and eating the food they’ve grown. No excuses not to eat those vegetables!

They’ve always been readers, but this moment in time has them interested in history. They’ve been reading historical nonfiction. They’re interested in what happened during the Civil Rights movement. We just watched the documentary about Representative John Lewis’s life.

I let my boys suggest something they wanted to do each day. My best ideas come from them. So if on a normal day at school, they played kickball with their friends, we would go to an open space to play kickball or throw a ball around together.”  —Tinneesha Reed, KIPP Whittier Middle Parent

“I have a three-year-old boy, a one-year old boy, and my oldest daughter, Micahya, at home during the quarantine. Micahya is in second grade at KIPP SPARK Academy. This summer, we spent a lot of time in an inflatable pool in our yard. We do arts and crafts projects. When it’s safe, we’ll go to Dollar Tree for craft supplies. Micahya loves fashion. We have her make sketches of clothing designs and then carry them out using towels or sheets—even though she’s not able to sew yet. She makes dresses for her dolls! 

Her birthday was in May and originally she wanted a skate-themed party. Instead, we did a Zoom party and a drive-by birthday celebration. Her teacher, Ms.Gadsden dropped by as a surprise and Micahya was so happy to see her! Afterwards, we did a socially distant skate party in Veteran’s Park where everyone wore masks and bought their own skates. ” —Shana Boyd-Merisier, KIPP SPARK Academy parent

Resources to Keep Your Family Connected and Learning 

  • Open CultureThis collection provides a list of free educational resources for K-12 students (kindergarten through high school students) and their parents and teachers.
  • ActivEd is offering free access to its “Walkabouts,” platform with web-based lessons for students in grades pre-K-2 students that integrate movement with language arts, math and reading content and correlate to state learning standards. Students, teachers, and parents can access grade-level content. 
  • Kahoot! Kahoot! is a game-based learning platform that brings together students to engage in learning activities together. 
  • Nova Labs at PBS offers aspiring scientists video, animation and games on scientific topics like predicting solar storms and constructing renewable energy systems.
  • National Geographic Kids offers a variety of fun and education games, quizzes, and puzzles for students of all ages. 
  • KIPP families who have questions about our school closures, are in need of services or food, or have been in close contact with someone affected by COVID-19 should call 973-679-7199