Tamara Este, Program Supervisor, Prevention and Early Intervention Services, SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health talks to us about children’s mental health, back to school challenges and tips for parents to support and care for their children.
Can you summarize the SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health perspective regarding return to school?
It is important that children return to school in the fall with appropriate strategies in place to ensure everyone’s safety. School provides many protective factors for children whose homes and/or communities may not be a healthy or safe environment. These protective factors include solid relationships with mentors, teachers, coaches, peers and the structure of healthy routines and activities. Social connections with peers are extremely important for mental health development. Consideration of all these factors will allow parents to make decisions about school that are best suited to their children’s individual needs.
How can parents and caregivers support children returning to school?
Parents and caregivers can familiarize themselves with back-to-school protocols and public health guidelines even as they are evolving. Children pick up emotional cues from their parents so it is important that parents show confidence in going back to school, even if privately they have reservations or their own worries.
When supporting children’s mental health, it is important to consider their developmental age and stage. For example, children between the ages of three and five are beginning to develop an awareness of their feelings and emotions. Changes in mood are very normal. Caregivers may need to help them name their feelings, find the words, and provide validation for them. They are also very inquisitive and have very active imaginations. They may need their caregivers to clarify any misconceptions about what is going to happen at school. Children at this age are typically able to follow instructions and routines so describing to them what a school day will look like, including and rehearsing with them what will be expected of them to keep them safe and healthy (such as wearing a mask, handwashing, and avoidance of sharing of school supplies) will help them to feel more secure and ready.
Older children are generally more aware of what is happening in the world. Life can be stressful because of all the upheaval, the daily news, the pandemic, and conversations about racism and discrimination. They will need to re-establish connections with peers after returning to school after a long absence and adapt to new rules and regulations related to the pandemic. All of these variables can generate a lot of anxiety and it is important to keep communication open and to maintain strong connections with caregivers and parents.
It is also important to prepare children for back-to-school routines. This means having conversations before school starts about re-establishing house rules around homework, use of social media, screen time, regular meals and bedtimes.
Although there are specific developmental stage approaches to support children’s mental health, parents of kids of all ages can use these tips:
- Listen closely to what children are feeling and saying
- Validate feelings, fears and worries and explore ways that they can be alleviated together
- Let your children know that you love them regardless of the behaviour or feelings being expressed (happy, sad, or mad)
- Remember to separate behaviour from emotions or feelings; “I love you, no matter what” is a key message
- Pick a moment when your child is relaxed and comfortable to talk about going back to school