Setting the Stage to Return to School
It’s that time of year again! Students and families transitioning from summer activities and sleeping in to gearing up for the new school year. For some, this is an exciting time. For others, this can bring uncertainty and worry. Covid-19 is still present in our day-to-day life, which brings many questions about the upcoming year. Is it safe to send my child to school in person? Will my child be able to see their friends again like before? Will there be switches or inconsistencies throughout the school year? Will they be behind in their academics? Will they feel overwhelmed or will they be able to catch up?
Here are a few answers to set your mind at ease. Most schools are maintaining all of their stringent health and safety protocols to make it the safest environment it can be for students. It should be as safe as possible to return to in-person learning. Research also shows that in-person education is typically more effective for students with Learning Disabilities. It also gives students the opportunity for social connection; this is a huge part of our well-being. With the strain that so many individuals and families felt in 2020 and 2021, engaging in social connection with others is important for mental health and building resiliency for uncertainty. Unfortunately, some questions are difficult to answer. It's hard to know how the year will progress as the province may make changes as new COVID-19 information comes out. However, there are things we can do to set ourselves up for success! Following these tips can help the school year go as smoothly as possible:
Daily routines are helpful for promoting mental health and supporting academics. This builds predictability into our schedules and helps to decrease stress and uncertainty. As you are settling into the school year, remember that consistency is key. These organization & time management tips can help us manage the general uncertainty we feel throughout the year:
- Reset routines: returning to typical morning and evening routines (going to bed, getting up, completing homework at the same time each day) helps build consistency and predictability. Consistent daily tasks also help prompt our memory, so we don’t forget little things in the mornings (helpful for students with ADHD & working memory challenges)
- Put up a calendar or other visual cues: have students check the day or week’s schedule for upcoming tasks. This serves as reminders for afterschool programs, upcoming assignments and deadlines. Knowing the upcoming schedule can put our minds at ease.
- Build executive functions: help students improve skills of planning, organization & time management. Executive Functions have a huge impact in keeping pace with schoolwork, avoiding feeling overwhelmed, and reducing the gap from the “summer slip” or falling further behind. It is much harder to self-regulate, pay attention or persevere when we feel overwhelmed.
- Refill the tank: a balanced diet, exercise, and enough sleep help us perform at our best and can help us self-regulate and tackle the challenges of the day.
The daily routine tips discussed above may be enough for some students to jump back into the swing of things. However, some students may also feel anxious about how the school year will go in our ever-changing world, especially amid Covid-19. For students, or families, who feel a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, there are extra things that can be included within a weekly schedule:
Addressing Uncertainty & Anxiety
Worry impacts our ability to perform to the best of our ability. We want to balance exercising caution without wearing ourselves out with worry. Students may be anxious about the uncertainty that the year could bring, health measures, or their academics. If so, here are things that families can do to reduce the impact of anxiety in the classroom:
- Listen to what your child says they find challenging. Empathize with them to let them know you recognize their frustration (i.e., “it seems like you’re nervous that you won’t figure it out” or “you feel bad that you made a mistake”). However, be careful not to get caught up in giving constant reassurance. We want them to build self-regulation skills themselves, not rely on reassurance.
- Don’t talk in absolutes. Avoid overly optimistic responses and recommend a more realistic approach. For example, instead of saying “the first day of school is going to be great and you’ll make a ton of friends”, you could say “the first day of school might be a bit scary but as you settle in you will likely make friends and grow to love it”.
- Talk about realistic school expectations. Unrealistically high or perfectionistic expectations will lead to frustration and erode self-confidence. Put experiences into context and offer a broader perspective. Challenge your child’s negative thoughts and replace negative statements with more positive and hopeful statements. For example, “I’m not going to get any better at this” can change to “I’ll give this another try from a different perspective.”
- Help students “talk back” to their anxiety: Teach them how to approach anxiety, not avoid it. Avoidance only feeds anxiety. While avoidance provides temporary relief, there is a resurgence of anxiety and an overall decrease in their confidence to cope. Learning to tolerate anxiety is how we overcome it. Have students challenge their worries. They can ask themselves “Am I just thinking of the worst possible outcome?” or “Have I done something in the past that was similar and succeeded?”
- Co-create their ‘toolbox’: We may have to try different strategies before finding the ones that work best for us. Practice these in moments of ‘calm’ to make it easier to use in moments of distress. Examples include:
- Deep breathing
- Movement (walk, stretch, dance break)
- Getting a drink/ snack
- Listening to music
- Drawing or other art work
- Writing our thoughts
- Speak with a trusted friend or adult/ ask for help
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided visual imagery
- Positive self-talk
- Keep a success journal: help students come up with examples of how they approached a challenging task in the past and what strategies they used to achieve success.
Building Resiliency Long-Term
In addition to helping your child build their own skills in the moment, parents can also support their children by engaging in self-care and utilizing extended supports.
- Emphasize effort and overall learning over the grades they receive. Provide positive feedback based upon their effort and personal improvement. This helps to promote a growth mindset. Students will learn to equate effort with progress and develop more persistence.
- Be aware of your own worries. Learn your triggers and practice your self-regulation strategies. Without realising it, children can pick up fears from family members.
- Model strategies. It can be helpful for parents to share their own experiences and how they handled the situation. Your children will watch you to see how you react in times of distress.
- Help students identify self-care activities. Either as individuals or as a family, help them create a list of go-to self-care activities that promote balance. Self-care activities can be a creative outlet, recreational activity, social activity, or something calming that brings them joy and refills their tank. Examples could include painting, baking, a sport, extra sleep, or meditation. ‘Back to school’ usually means a shifted focus on academics. While this is important, it should not be their only focus. Creating balance in their schedule helps promote overall wellbeing. Help them be flexible and adjust their schedule/activities if needed.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, we’re not in this alone! Teach self-advocacy skills so students can access external supports when needed. Teachers, counsellors, psychologists and community groups are available if anxiety escalates.
The pandemic has certainly added extra complications to our lives and schedules! We have had to learn new platforms as things moved online, to be flexible as regulations frequently changed, and to experience extended uncertainty (i.e., health and safety, employment, when we’d see friends and academic progress). No matter what events happen over the upcoming school year, utilizing strategies can help to set ourselves up for success! Remember to chat with teachers to inform them of any changes in their students’ lives which would increase anxiety and impact school performance. Don’t be afraid to reach out to community resources to support your child or yourself!
Resources for Families:
- Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson.
- Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Ronald M. Rapee, Ann Wignall, & Others
- Understood.org - Helping Students Cope with Change and Disruption
- Childmind.org - Managing Anxiety During Reopening
- Anxiety Canada - Returning to a New Normal: 12 Tips for Handling Uncertainty
- Take a Break!
- Stop Think & Breath