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How to help children's mental health during COVID: A TODAY All Day town hall

Jenna Bush Hager asks experts how to help our children through the pandemic.

The upcoming school year is going to look and feel different from any other. While the shifts have been necessary because of COVID, we can’t ignore how these changes will affect the mental health of children or their parents, whether kids are learning remotely or in person.

Jenna Bush Hager spoke to a panel of mental health professionals on TODAY All Day, the TODAY show's streaming channel, for a special hour-long town hall, “Coronavirus and the Classroom,” a collaboration with Common Sense.

Watch TODAY All Day: Get the best news, information and inspiration from TODAY, all day long.

Answering questions about children's development and mental health were Dr. Stephanie Lee, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, Dr. Allison Kanter Agliata, a psychologist and former head of middle school in Tampa Florida, and Tom Kerstin, a psychotherapist and family counselor.

What will a prolonged lack of socialization do to our kids' development? And how can we as parents try to make up for it?

“We don’t know exactly what this crisis will do to our kids in terms of social development,” Lee said. “But we do know that kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for…even more resilient than adults.”

She advises parents to be “as targeted as possible” in helping their children develop social skills. For instance, if you want to work on your child’s conversational skills, encourage them to reach out to their classmates more over the phone or via video chat. Teach them how to listen thoughtfully and ask specific questions. Focusing on everything is too overwhelming, so target one skill at a time.

What can parents do to limit our kids’ screen time when everything is happening on the computer?

The non-profit organization Parents Together recently conducted a survey on screen time which concluded that kids are spending 500% more time on screens than they were before the pandemic. While computers have become a social lifeline for kids stuck at home, excessive screen time can have adverse effects on mental health. It’s a difficult situation, but Kersting has one concrete piece of advice: make sure that remote learning is happening in a “central location” in the house, as opposed to in an isolated location like your child’s bedroom.

It’s also critical that students not bring their smartphones to their remote learning sessions. This will help virtual school feel more like the real thing, and will limit their capacity to get distracted and sucked into even more screen time.

It’s a stressful time for parents too, and kids can feel our anxieties. What can we do to make sure that we are our best selves for our children?

“Children are just little people,” says Agliata, who is also related to an NBC producer. “So we have to remember that as parents we are role modeling stress management.”

Parents should be mindful of their own self-care. Managing your own stress can help your kids do the same. They will follow your lead.

What about kids with social anxiety who have really enjoyed remote learning? What can we do for them when school returns to normal?

Lee says that children will transition back according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Every child has different needs. “So if your child has social anxiety… the one thing you want to make sure of is that they are not completely cut off from the rest of the world and that they do maintain some social connections.”

Continuing to FaceTime with friends and having socially distant interactions, if possible, can make a big difference in a child’s social development.

If you notice your child is having difficulty, “be your child’s best advocate,” Agliatta says. It’s tougher than ever for teachers to connect with their students, so if you have a concern, it’s a good idea to let the teacher know. It will make the teacher’s job easier and help your child get the specific attention and feedback they need.

How will coronavirus affect friendships? How do kids make friends and maintain them?

“We know that a lot of kids are actually making friends virtually these days. There are a lot of outlets online for them to be social," Lee says. Face to face contact is also important, so it’s good to maintain a healthy balance as much as you can.

Kersting is optimistic as well, saying that the challenges of remote learning might actually work as a bonding opportunity for students and faculty, helping them to build stronger relationships both with each other and with their peers.

Most important, whether you are homeschooling or remote learning, is to continue to give your children positive feedback. Remind them of their strengths. “Give them a little extra support and some TLC” says Agliatta.

For parents, teachers and students alike, Back to school can be a stressful time, this year especially. If we maintain positive attitudes, “something good will come out of this,” Kersting says. It’s a difficult time, but an opportunity for growth. If we rise to the challenge, we can all make a big difference in helping our kids emerge from the pandemic stronger, more resilient, and more eager to learn than ever before.