How to help kids cope with back-to-school stress amid coronavirus: experts weigh in

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Parents scrambling to figure out how to safely send their children back to school
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It’s normal for kids to get back-to-school butterflies as the bell ring draws near. But on top of the familiar concerns about fitting in and getting good grades, kids need to deal with a new set of stresses this fall as they head back to class in the thick of a pandemic.

From the social pressures of being sorted into class cohorts to fears about bringing the novel coronavirus back home, experts say returning to school will likely provoke some anxiety for students of all ages.

For advice on how to help children cope, The Canadian Press spoke to Ashley Miller, a child psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital, and Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at University of Guelph-Humber.

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Stick to the program

After months of learning at home away from their friends, school might seem like a scary place for many kids afraid of catching the virus or infecting their relatives, Miller said.

However, a child’s distress can’t dictate the family plan.

She said parents can try to alleviate their children’s concerns by assuring them that there’s a plan in place to keep them safe, and their participation is a crucial part of it.

“There’s lots of ways we can get kids involved, and they have a bit more of a sense of control.”

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TDSB answers back-to-school questions from parents

She suggested parents help their children get a head start over the summer by practising how to catch up with classmates from a two-metre distance, or picking out a mask that will make them the envy of all their friends.

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Martyn said such preparation will also help children settle into their new COVID-19 school schedule.

“Children really love and thrive on a routine,” Martyn said. “It’s important that when school starts again, we set up routines … to help provide structure for your child and try to reduce stress.”

Recognize the symptoms of stress

Martyn said parents should keep an eye out for changes in mood and behaviour that may suggest their children are suffering from undue stress.

Signs can include excessive handwashing, self-soothing habits such as thumb sucking and uncharacteristic emotional outbursts, she said.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to seek help from a family doctor or mental health professional, Martyn said.

Stay in school, kids

Miller expects many kids will come up with creative ways to get out of class come September, a problem that’s known as school avoidance.

Young children may complain of phantom maladies as an excuse to skip school. It’s important to acknowledge these ailments as real, even if they’re emotionally rooted, she said. But once you’ve ruled out COVID-19, the goal should be to lead kids back to the classroom.

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This may prove to be a greater challenge for young adults who can protest “with their feet,” Miller said. It may be useful to remind teenagers of the reasons why they’d want to be at school with their friends rather than staying home under parental supervision.

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Prepping for back to school

Making the grade during COVID-19

Research suggests that heightened anxiety can interfere with academic performance, Miller said, so getting straight As shouldn’t be the focus for kids this semester.

“Everyone’s going have to be on board for taking care of the kids’ emotional well-being so that learning can get underway.”

She said that means school curricula will have to take a back seat to the more important lessons of trusting teachers and following safety protocols.

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READ MORE: Schools reopening may lead to outbreaks, but we can’t afford to keep them closed, experts say 

If parents notice a dip in their children’s report cards, Miller urged them to remember that a negative COVID-19 test is the most important measure of success.

The kids will be all right, but parents and teachers need to be too

Change is always hard, Miller said, but people of all ages are adaptable, and in many ways, kids are more so than anyone else.

She noted that kids take emotional cues from the adults around them, so it’s important that parents and teachers project confidence in public health leadership, even if they harbour private reservations.

Click to play video: 'Is it safe for kids to go back to school? An infectious disease expert weighs in'
Is it safe for kids to go back to school? An infectious disease expert weighs in

For better or worse, we’re all in this together, Martyn said, so everyone has a role to play in looking out for children’s best interests.

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“The nice thing would be if we go in with openness and understanding and try our best, recognizing that we’re all going to fail a little bit and we’re all going to learn a little bit in the end.”

There’s no ‘right’ answer

Miller recognizes that parents face a difficult choice in weighing the anxieties of returning to school against the emotional strain and social isolation of home-schooling.

Those decisions should be guided by the advice of public health officials, the prevalence of the virus in the community, the family’s risk factors and the child’s individual needs.

“There’s no perfect answer for everybody,” Miller said, noting medical professionals can offer advice to help figure out what’s best for your family.

Click to play video: 'Parenting Playbook: Answering parents’ back-to-school questions'
Parenting Playbook: Answering parents’ back-to-school questions

It’s OK to not be OK

Martyn said one of the most important things parents can do to help their children cope with back-to-school stress is assure them that their feelings are normal, and even share some of their own.

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“The kids need to know that it’s OK to not be OK,” she said. “(They need to) know that they’re not alone, and they can count on you and you’ll always be there for them.”

She said the key is to support them through their struggles so they can make it to the other side stronger than before.

“We’re teaching children the important skill of resilience,” she said. “They’ll learn that they can persevere and get through difficult, stressful circumstances.”

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