B.C. child psychiatrist says ‘get kids involved’ with school preparation to help with COVID-19 stress

B.C. child psychiatrist says ‘get kids involved’ with school preparation to help with COVID-19 stress
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Ashley Miller, a child psychiatrist at BC Children's Hospital, suggests that after months of learning at home away from their friends, school might seem like a scary place for many kids.

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.

Ashley Miller, a child psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital, suggests that after months of learning at home away from their friends, school might seem like a scary place for many kids, however, she believes 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.”

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.

Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at University of Guelph-Humber 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.”

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

With children headed back to the classroom in B.C. during the second week of September, Miller expects many kids will come up with creative ways to get out of class, 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.

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.

Research suggests that heightened anxiety can interfere with academic performance, Miller adds, suggesting that 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

“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.”

With files to Canadian Press

Graham CoxGraham Cox

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