Setting the Stage for Back-to-School:
A Focus on Mental Health Support for Parents and Families
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During these challenging times, you may be experiencing stress and worry about having your child return to school – either in-class or online. The following are considerations to help you support your children during this time.
First and foremost, children and youth need connections with adults who will help lead them through the back-to-school transition. Be it through attending in-class or online, both will be new experiences for everyone. As parents and caregivers, you already have experience with being a natural caretaker and helping your child navigate difficult situations in life. It is through your leadership that your children will become prepared for back-to-school and grow their own resilience.
We know that moving forward from the pandemic, our children and youth need three things:
The following are tips and strategies to help you create these conditions for you and your family.
During times of uncertainty, we need to focus on what we can do as adults to help our children feel secure. We can do this through taking the lead and modelling a calm and thoughtful approach to a difficult situation. Calm begets calm, so as adults model calmness, children will experience less fear. This in turn will allow children and youth to express their thoughts and emotions. For adults to model calm, they need to be aware of their own thoughts and emotions related to these difficult situations.
Reinforce to your child that they will be taken care of. If returning in-class, instead of focusing on “will I be safe?” reassure them that the caregivers at the school will be there to support them through this transition and will respond to their concerns. Assure your child that “your teacher is looking forward to seeing you” and other positive messages that convey confidence in school and the staff that will be caring for your child. The same goes for those participating in online learning. The teacher is looking forward to meeting and getting to know your child and will ensure they too feel safe, secure, and a sense of belonging in the virtual classroom and larger school community.
Regardless of how your child is being taught, use calm language to reduce fears and anxiety. Consider how you are talking about school re-entry, the choices you have made for your family, and the choices other people are making for theirs. Explore how you can increase your child’s confidence. Instead of messages about “staying safe” consider other language such as “stay well” or “stay apart” or “keep your distance” and “be healthy.” Even if your child is participating in online learning, these phrases can be re-assuring when you take your child out in the community or decide to re-integrate back into the classroom. These types of phrases help focus on what we can control, without raising anxiety about safety.
Ensure your child understands why it is recommended or mandated to wear masks. Remind them, it’s not a reflection of who is sick, but part of a community effort to keep everyone well.
Be mindful of what you share with your child: while we may have our own concerns and doubts, these are better shared with other adults than with children. Lean on other adults to help you with your concerns while giving positive, supportive messages to children. Keep information age-appropriate.
Be mindful of any judgements you may have if your family, friends, or neighbours have made different choices than yours. Remember, for pretty much all of us, this is the first time navigating the waters of a pandemic. We are all in the same storm, but each in our own very different boat.
Be patient and understanding. Recognize that you may see behaviour changes in your child as they adjust to new routines and experience stress. This might look like increased frustration, being more emotional, or aggression. Reframe and think of these as stress behaviours rather than deliberate misbehaviours. Offer reassurance and calm while you help them adjust. If you are concerned that your child is not adjusting, reach out to school staff for further support and direction.
These are unique and exceptionally challenging times for everyone. Accept your child’s feelings and make room for emotional expression. Reassure your child that their feelings are normal and expected. Refrain from judging or dismissing your child’s feelings, instead, acknowledge how they feel and that you are there to support them, as well as the staff at school.
Help children face the reality about the way things have to be and what cannot be changed for now, so that they can move on. This can be done by providing time for children to express their stories and their feelings. Acknowledge how they feel about the changes but reinforce “that is the way it has to be right now.”
Once you have acknowledged their thoughts and feelings, discuss potential solutions. By planning together, you are encouraging your child to express their thoughts and feelings related to returning to school. Discuss misinformation and fears alongside promoting positive thoughts. This will help develop resiliency as your child will understand that they play an important part in the process.
Keep the process of returning to school positive. Encourage your child to think positively about school and their ability to adjust. When your child is feeling nervous or upset, it is normal to have unhelpful thoughts such as “I don’t want to go back to school” or “I really don’t want to do online learning anymore.” Help your child to develop self-talk that is helpful, without dismissing their worry. For example: “I am scared about going back to school, but I can talk to a parent, relative or teacher to help me feel better” or “I am not sure what distance learning is going to be like this time, but I’m willing to try one day at a time to help me feel better.”
Regardless of what learning option is chosen – online or in-class, children will be curious about the actual school and the people attending. They may be worried if they themselves are going, and if they’re not, they may worry about their friends, their teachers and the support staff who are going. When talking about school, refer to changes made as “health precautions” rather than “safety measures.” Reinforce to children that the adults at school will be there to remind and help students with the changes in the daily routine at school.
Limit exposure to news and media. Avoid watching news coverage about the pandemic with young children around, as well as adult conversations about the pandemic. With older children and adolescents, encourage them to be aware of social media and to take breaks from this. Help them to think critically about what they are reading online, sorting myths from facts.
Communicate with the school. If you have questions or concerns, reach out to find answers and get the support you need to help you support your child’s feeling of security. There are mental health supports that can be accessed in-person or online to help students and families who are struggling, both in the school and in the community. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help or information.
Feeling a Sense of Belonging
We know from research that many children and youth have suffered emotionally from being disconnected from school. Schools provide social connections and relationships that help children and youth to grow and flourish. Children and youth benefit from positive connections with adults and other students in school. Promoting these relationships is important for a healthy transition back-to-school – whether that’s in-class or online.
Have conversations about what they are looking forward to this fall. Consider asking these questions:
Who are you looking forward to connecting with this school year? If that person is participating in a different learning model than your child, explore ways they can connect.
What are some things you have missed about not being at school? If your child is not returning to in-class learning, explore if these things can be provided virtually or through other means; and if they can’t, reassure your child that this arrangement won’t last forever.
What are you most looking forward to? It’s important to ask this question as it encourages thinking about the future and about possibilities. Having positive conversations about school, no matter what the format, will help build the connection.
Whether it is online learning or in-class, reinforce that your child is part of the school community. Ensure that if your child is participating in online learning that they have what they need to participate fully. Communicate regularly with school staff and seek information and support if you or your child is experiencing challenges related to online instruction.
Pay attention to special transitions. For some students who are just entering school, we want them to have a wonderful start to their school journey even if it looks different than it would in other years. The traditions of school readiness (e.g., gathering school supplies, school photos) can still be exciting for children. Consider ways that you can make these transitions fun. For students who are starting at a new school, review information available and find out what you can about the new school and what to expect. Regardless of their age, reassure your child that there will be many caring adults at school, whether online or in-person, to help them navigate this transition.
Be aware of your child’s unique experience with school and how previous or current challenges may impact their back-to-school transition. Reach out to staff in the school to discuss your concerns and develop a plan for addressing concerns. Particularly if your child has struggled with school, it’s important to communicate any updated information, strategies or solutions that you feel will help your child be successful.
Reinforce expectations that you know the school will have for your child, and practice some of those skills at home. For example: wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene and respecting physical distancing are skills that will help your child feel a sense of belonging, knowing that others will be expected to do the same things if they return to school. If they are engaged in online learning, remind them of the schedule and the expectations the teacher will have with regards to attendance, participation, and completing assignments. Other children participating in online learning will be expected to do the same. Normalize these expectations as things that everyone will be working on together.
Feeling a Sense of Hope
For ourselves and our children to be well, it’s important to have a sense of hope for the future. As adults, we can model this optimism in our words and actions. It is through our resilience that we can manage the challenges of life and learn and grow from these experiences.
It’s crucial for parents and adults to be aware of the tone they set for children. If we are hopeful and optimistic in our words and tone, even when we have our worries and doubts, then our children will follow our lead. Keep in mind that children pick up on other people’s feelings and will sometimes start to feel the same way.
Provide positive messages to your child about how well they coped with COVID-19 to date and that it’s now time for back-to-school. Some children and youth will be relieved to return in-class as it feels familiar. They may, in fact, be more optimistic than the adults about returning to school. Those engaging in online learning may be relieved as perhaps they had challenges before the pandemic, or they simply prefer online learning. Whatever your child is feeling, validate their feelings, allow time for conversation, and share the positives you see about whatever scenario they’re in.
Speak positively about the staff and helping adults at the school and their ability to support your child as we navigate new ways of being together – whether in-class or online. Assure your child that there are caring adults at the school who are looking forward to seeing them. Remind your child that they came through a difficult time. They have had to deal with losses that were associated with both school closure and the pandemic. Use language that reinforces their strengths. For example: “Even though it was hard not to see your friends, you made it through” or “Even though you missed your year-end trip, you handled the disappointment well. You have shown a lot of maturity through all of this.”
Reinforce resilience by pointing out to children and youth that they have been learning how to handle lots of change throughout this time and as a result are wiser and more prepared to handle new challenges in life. For example: “you’ve done something you never had to do before – that will help you handle other new things” or “you must be proud of yourself for how you have handled this.”
Remind children and youth that they have had to learn and practice new procedures at school in the past and they will be able to learn new routines at school this year as well. Give examples of other things in life that your child has had to learn and adjust to as examples of their flexibility and strength. For example: going to the dentist, experiencing a loss, facing a fear.
If you still have questions or concerns, it’s important to reach out to those who can help you find the information you are seeking. Feel free to reach out to your school principal who can assist you. It is through working together that we will be able to overcome the challenges that come our way and support children and youth to have a healthy and successful school year.
References and Resources:
Safe and Inclusive Schools Lead,
Grand Erie District School Board
Mental Health and Well Being Lead,
Grand Erie District School Board